Jesus Walks on Water
Goal: To help the youth continue to develop their ability to read biblical texts critically and creatively.
Text: Mark 6:47-52 (see also Matthew 14:22-33, John 6:16-21)
1) Youth will explore the story of Jesus walking on water as found in the gospel of Mark.
2) Youth will consider what the story might be saying when seen at face value.
3) Youth will discuss other interpretive approaches to the text.
4) Youth will share how this story might be meaningful for us today.
This section in Mark opens with Jesus encountering the people in “a deserted place.” Through what appears to be a miracle, food is provided for all those present, and Jesus teaches them. Then Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray. Sound familiar? To a first century audience, the echoes of the Exodus story in this passage from Mark would have been loud and clear. Like Moses, Jesus gathers the people in a deserted place, provides them food, and then goes to the mountain to pray. The metaphorical message is clear: Just as God was present in the life and ministry of Moses, so the power of God is present in this man Jesus.
But the parallels don’t end there. Next, Mark tells us that Jesus sends the Disciples out in a boat to sail to the other side of the sea. The Disciples find themselves battling high winds and it is Jesus who appears and calms the wind and the waters – not unlike Moses commanding the waters of the Red Sea to part for the Israelites.
Again, these literary parallels would not have been missed by a first century audience. Just as God commanded the waters and winds of chaos in creation, and just as God worked through Moses to part the waters of the sea, in the same way God’s power is now at work in Jesus. It is worth noting that for first century people, water was a common symbol of Chaos, destruction, of the powers and principalities that threatened to rule the world. And so God’s presence is often depicted in a calming of those waters of chaos – Job speaks of God as “the one who trampled the waves of the sea.” (Job 9:8)
So here we have the disciples, out on the water (for the second time, actually, in Mark’s gospel), straining against the winds and the waves. In fact, Mark suggests that they are so preoccupied with their struggle that Jesus intends to “pass them by.” In the midst of the chaos of the waters, they see Jesus coming toward them – not skating on the ice, not stepping on stones, not wading at the shore – for to describe the story that way would be to miss the whole point. Jesus, walking on water, is right there in the midst of the storm, in the thick of their struggle and troubles. He doesn’t call out to the disciples to meet him on shore where everything is nice and calm! He goes to meet them – in the very midst of their fear.
1) Opening: Invite the youth to think about to when they were little children. Ask: What sorts of things were you afraid of when you were little? Are you still afraid of any of those things? What are you afraid of now? Share that today we are looking at another strange Bible story, this time from the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel has a lot to do with fear. In fact, the book ends with Jesus’ death, the male disciples running away in fear, and the women who discover the empty tomb also running off in fear, telling no one of what they saw. It might be interesting to see what Mark’s theme of “fear” and “Are you afraid to follow & trust Jesus?” plays out in today’s story.
2) The Story: Read together the text. Invite the youth to recount what this story is about, if we just go with the basic plot and take it as a report of an actual event. What does the story tell us? How does it portray Jesus? If just taken at face value, what is the point of this story?
Share some examples of how some have tried to explain how this story could have actually happened and invite responses from the class:
- An oceanographer at Florida State University has presented a scientific rationalization for how Jesus may have walked on water. He determined that the temperatures in Israel in Jesus’ day were 10 degrees cooler than today. Given the right 3-day cold front, “spring ice” (as he calls it), might have formed on the sea of Galilee, making it possible for someone to appear to “walk on the water” when in fact they were simply gliding on the ice.
- Another example: Some scholars have suggested that this story would make more sense in a different context – and that it was likely meant to be a post-resurrection story – a sort of “ghost story”—in which Jesus is floating on the water – and that later biblical editors, somewhat embarrassed by such ghost stories – instead inserted the story earlier in the narrative to appear to happen during Jesus’ life.
- Still others try to explain away the story as a probable error in translation. Where it now says “walking on water,” they argue that the original translation was likely “walking by the water.”
- Lastly, some of the class have likely have heard the old joke that Jesus just simply knew where the rocks were to step on!
- What explanations might the student want to share?
Ultimately, if we assume there is more going on here than just a report of a historical event, none of these explanations matter much. Perhaps it is less important to ask of this story “Did it happen?” than it is to consider “What does it mean?”
3) Digging Deeper: Challenge the youth to look more closely at the story, considering if any historical, cultural, or literary context might help us make sense of it. One at a time, share the comments below (or print them out and and have students read them aloud one at a time) and ask the group how each fact might help us understand the story in a different way:
- In the ancient world, water was seen as a symbol of chaos (think: violent storms, crashing waves, torrential floods) and in the Old Testament God is often depicted as being able to control that chaos. Given this, what might Mark be trying to say when he depicts Jesus as being able to walk on the water itself?
- The gospel writers often used stories from the Old Testament and retold them as if they happened during Jesus’ life. Think of the story of Jesus controlling the water (and the story that comes right before this of Jesus feeding the 5000). Where do we see echoes of these stories in the Old Testament? Why might Mark want us to make connections between these stories?
- The first people hearing this story were living during or right after a major war between the Jews and the Romans. These early followers of Jesus were being persecuted by both the Empire and their fellow Jews. They had much to fear. One of the major theme’s of Mark’s gospel is “fear.” Mark seems to be asking: “Are you afraid to follow the way that Jesus is going?” Why might the writer of Mark felt that creating this story would help his listeners think about that question?
- Rather than having Jesus wave the disciples onto the safety of the shore, Mark has him go out to them in the midst of the wind, water, and chaos. What could this symbolize?
What could this story mean for us today? What fears might we have in following our faith today?
4) Responding: Invite the group to share their thoughts on what we might be challenged to do in our faith life that might initially seem scary (e.g. going on a mission trip, talking to a stranger about our faith). What challenges could they take in the coming week that might be a little scary but worth trying in order to live out the good news.
Close in prayer.