Human life begins in a little ocean inside the womb. We imagine it to be a world of perfect peace. Nothing can bother us in those first months – food comes to us with the regularity of our mother’s heartbeat; all other noises are muffled, the temperature is always right, we just curl up in the water and float in the complete unity of life – until the water breaks, that is.
Then, suddenly, it’s this assault of gravity and bright lights, cold air, strange, unfiltered sounds, and very soon another terrifying sensation – hunger. The peace is gone, until we’re held and gently rocked, until we’re fed and warm — in a word, the peace is gone until we know we’re loved.
It may well be the fact that we spend the first months of our existence immersed in water like fish in the ocean, that we have this life-long attraction to water. There’s nothing like soaking in a hot tub when your muscles are sore – or your soul. You just float in the warm goodness and the memories of every bath you ever had, and the tensions melt, the muscles relax, and your soul sings. We love water; the pleasures of splashing and swimming; playing in the creek; the fun of zipping down a water slide or doing a canon-ball from a diving board; listening to the sound of rain drops drumming on the leaves of the trees; taking a shower at the end of a long, hot day; we are touched by the beauty of rivers, lakes, and falls, and by the sound of waves rolling up on the beach.
When the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus got larger, he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so he could pull away from the shore and teach from the boat. People heard his stories about the sower scattering seed on the ground with the sound of water in the background, little waves lapping up onto the pebbles and rocks. They listened to his parables while looking out at the vast openness of sea and sky. Let that scene sink in, just for a moment: you’re sitting by the water’s edge, listening to Jesus telling stories about the reign of God and its nearness. You don’t just hear the promise of wholeness, you’re living in it.
On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” and leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat. Most of the people on the beach, I imagine, went home; they had things to do, animals to look after, meals to prepare, kids to get ready for bed. But some hung around a little longer and they watched the boat go east. “What business does he have going over there,” some of them must have wondered, “it’s only Gentiles over there, a land full of idol worshippers and all kinds of unholy spirits. They’re not our people over there — what business does he have going to the other side?” Dark clouds were moving in, casting shadows over what had been such a lovely day on the lake shore.
Meanwhile, in the boat, the disciples were enjoying the quiet and the evening breeze — until the wind started picking up, and then a storm broke lose. The waves beat into the boat, and it was being swamped. Chaos had been unleashed, the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.
Water is one of our most powerful symbols because it represents some of our deepest needs and comforts along with some of our greatest fears. We hear this story, well aware that these aren’t days for smooth sailing, these are stormy days. These are days of fear and anger, of disbelief and outrage, of perplexing silence and helpless shouting. We can’t quite name all that has been unleashed and let loose, but we feel the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.
A mighty fortress is our God, the church has taught us to sing. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. I see a stronghold built on rock, surrounded by raging seas, waves battering the walls relentlessly, but to no avail: this fortress is a mighty one. And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear. The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: One little word shall fell them. One little word. But it is so much easier to sing bravely against the storm from within the walls of a fortress built high on a cliff than from inside a little boat tossed about by the wind and the waves.
The disciples saw Jesus, curled up on a cushion, sleeping like a baby, a picture of peace in the midst of the storm. They woke him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Did they need him to help get the water out of the boat or take hold of the rudder? If so, why didn’t they say so or hand him a pail? I wonder if they woke him because they were in the grip of fear and it bothered them that he didn’t seem to be the least bit troubled. “Do you not care that this little boat is going down and all of us with it?” They were panicky and frantic and the fact that he wasn’t only made it worse.
Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and it was so. He spoke and it came to be. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.
One little word, and there was great calm. And the disciples? Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” There is a popular reading of this story where Jesus isn’t rebuking the wind and the waves, but the disciples for being afraid in the storm. According to that reading, we ought to always remember, no matter how high the waves or how violent the winds, that Jesus is in the boat with us – and that we shouldn’t be afraid, and if we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid. According to that reading, we ought to tie ourselves to the mast and laugh at the storm, “Bring it on! Is that all you got?” I believe this is dangerous nonsense, because the next time your little boat gets hit by a storm, and you know it will, you will be afraid, and on top of everthing else, you’ll feel guilty for being afraid. As if fear wasn’t enough.
Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples; he commanded the wind and the waves to be still. Remember, the whole trip was his idea. “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. This was no evening cruise to a restaurant on the other side of the bay. He took them out to sea, away from the land and the life they knew, to the land of the Gentiles. Why? Because idols and demons ruled on the other side and Jesus invaded their territory to bring the kingdom of God. Because sin and death and fearmongering ruled on the other side and Jesus crossed over to bring forgiveness, healing, and wholeness to life. This was no pleasure cruise, this was D-day. Little wonder the forces of chaos tried to stop the little boat with waves bucking like bulls and wind gusts strong enough to break everything in their path.
Jesus’ life and mission is one dangerous crossing after another. His presence, his teachings, and his actions lead to confrontation between the way things are and the way they are to be – around us, between us, and within us. The truth is, when Jesus is near, the storms aren’t far. But when Jesus speaks, we hear the word that brought creation into being. When Jesus speaks, we hear the Author of Life, the One who prescribed bounds for the sea, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”
Ann Schmid used to think about Jesus stilling the storm as something like the scene from Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey, the apprentice, casts a spell while mopping the floor and the mops begin to carry their own buckets of water. The room begins to fill with water, and still the buckets keep coming. As the water rises higher, Mickey tries all sorts of magic spells, but none works. The waves rise higher and begin to toss him about. And just when it looks like he’s a goner, the sorcerer appears. Throwing open the door at the top of the steps, he sees what is happening, speaks a word of power, and the water meekly subsides and drains away. Ann writes,
I used to think about Jesus stilling the storm that way—standing up in the boat, arms raised above his head, powerfully rebuking the wind with an almighty word and commanding the sea, “Peace! Be still!”
And then I became a mother.
When our son was little, he would occasionally have night terrors—those too powerful, too vivid dreams that children can have. In the middle of the night I would hear his frightened wail. By the time I raced down the hall to his room, Wes would be gasping for breath between cries, his body shaking uncontrollably. He’d appear to be awake, eyes wide open in fear, but actually he was caught in the midst of a powerful nightmare.
Ann picked him up, but he couldn’t stop crying. He’d struggle to get out of her arms, the storm inside raging beyond his control. Ann and her husband spoke to him, “Wake up! Calm down! Be still!” with voices loud enough to be heard above his wails. It didn’t work. In time they learned to wrap their little boy in a secure embrace, to talk to him quietly, to soothe him until finally the terror passed and his little heart slowed and his breathing became regular and he fell asleep.
On one of those nights as Ann sat rocking her son, she softly started to sing “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” She wasn’t sure why that old hymn had come into her mind until she got to the second verse: “As a mother stills her child, thou canst hush the ocean wild ...”
Jesus has taken us into the boat with him. He is taking us with him to the other side in love’s invasion of this love-starved world. He is taking us with him because all things become whole in his presence.
 Mark 3:9; 4:1
 Genesis 1:7ff.; Psalm 33:9; Psalm 107:29
 See Job 38:8-11
 Ann Schmid, The Christian Century, January 4, 2017, 24; online at