John 6:16-21 – Rule #7

More in the “Florida Man trashes Fourth Evangelist” saga tonight.

John 6:16-21 is a little story that kind of seems like a joke your 9-year old niece is retelling from Saturday Night Live. It probably made some sense at the time, but some significant elements must have been lost in the retelling.

Jesus walking on the water is a story the casual Christian is at least vaguely aware of. And if you’re thinking of Jesus calling Peter out of the boat so he can walk on water, too, well, that’s the story. Except not the way John tells it.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus feeds the multitudes and then sends the disciples off ahead of him while he dismisses the crowds. A storm arises in the night, and Jesus walks by, and (in Matthew’s version) Peter asks Jesus to help him walk on the water too, with mixed success. This gets used a lot to preach about having faith and not being a weenie like Peter.

John, of course, tells it differently. Recall that his story of the feeding of the multitudes sends Jesus running away from the crowds up the mountain, lest they make him king. So instead of Jesus sending the disciples on ahead, they just decide they’re heading home to Capernaum after night falls and the mobs disperse.  Let’s pick up there.

“Night came on, and Jesus still had not come to them. By then a strong wind was blowing and stirring up the water. The disciples had rowed about three or four miles when they saw Jesus walking on the water, coming near the boat, and they were terrified.” (6:17b-19)


So, first of all, look at the first phrase. “Night came on, and Jesus still had not come to them.” Either John, like a 9-year old, is lousy at telling stories because he gives away the game too early, or the disciples were expecting Jesus to come. Because “Jesus still had not come to them,” means pretty clearly that the expectation, the plan was that Jesus was going to meet them somehow. So it seems weird that they freaked out when he showed up just as they planned

Also, as someone who spends a fair bit of time helping people to prioritize what to freak out about and what to let go, it seems a little odd that they aren’t freaked out about the strong wind and rising water. (Granted, current weather events may be shaping that opinion.) Were it me, I would prioritize freaking out about the storm that might kill them all (which the disciples do, in other gospel stories), and let the fact that Jesus shows up (as apparently was planned) in an admittedly freaky way kind of simmer on the back burner until a later date. “Hey, so, Jesus, remember when you saved us from the storm? That was really awesome. But can we go back and revisit how you did the water-walking thing? Because we have some logistics questions to ask about that.”  Prioritize, people.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this botched story after all. Maybe we should recognize just how often we ask for something and then freak out when it happens. I guess.

But I think the better point, the real reason to freak out, comes later. Once they realize Jesus is, in fact, Jesus, they gladly welcome him into the boat, and immediately they are transported to where they were headed. They had been at it awhile and surely were asking “Are we there yet?” That the moment they welcome Jesus, they magically teleport to their destination, is miraculous to the point of freak-out worthy. Because from my experience, the answer to “Are we there yet?” Is always “No.” And welcoming Jesus into the boat never seems to get me to the destination with miraculous speed; it just gives me good company with which to pass the time.

PS One of the local weather guys here, Denis Phillips, has a list of rules for hurricanes, with #7 being “Don’t freak out.” It’s very much a mantra for him – he even has merch – and thus the title.

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