Then he made his disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side toward Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And when he had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray.
When it was evening, the boat was far out on the sea and he was alone on the shore. Then he saw that they were tossed about while rowing, for the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them.
But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. They had all seen him and were terrified. But at once he spoke with them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!” He got into the boat with them and the wind died down. They were completely astounded.
They had not understood the incident of the loaves. On the contrary, their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:45-52
I am much more familiar with Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water than I am with Mark’s. The number of words and actions that stood out to me upon my recent reading of this passage tells me that anytime I’ve studied this particular story of Jesus, I made use of only Matthew’s account.
Right out of the gate, I note that Jesus made his disciples go in the boat and leave him behind. It gives the impression that they didn’t want to leave, didn’t wish to be separated from him. They had just witnessed the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. They were likely amazed, but confused, and had questions for Jesus. I would guess they were looking forward to some time spent with Jesus without the crowd so the twelve of them could ask those questions and mull over what had happened. Instead, Jesus tells them to take the boat to the other side of the sea and leave him behind.
On their way they encounter high winds and waves. It is stressful, exhausting, and possibly frightening. And Jesus is not with them. They don’t know he’s watching them from the shore. They don’t know he is seeing their travail.
Then Jesus takes to the water. He begins walking across the sea. Easily could we think “He’s going to them.” Jesus must be walking to his disciples, his closest companions, friends, and followers. He sees their hardship and He is going to them. Thus my surprise when I read “He meant to pass by them.” What?! This is the line that baffled me when I read this passage recently. It’s been on my mind for at least a week. “He meant to pass by them.” He was simply going to walk by them and leave them to the storm? He wasn’t going to help? He wasn’t going to get into the boat with them and calm the wind? Really, Jesus? Why?
It took until today, thinking on this yet again, to change my tune. “He meant to pass by them.” As in, He meant to get close enough for them to see Him. Close enough for them to call to Him, to ask Him to help. Yes. That is what Jesus meant to do. Instead of keeping His distance, waiting out the storm, or even helping from afar – instead of this, He would draw near. He would help them in the midst of their trouble. He would make Himself personally available to them.
I’m not claiming this is the only possible interpretation of this moment in the Gospel. As far as what the disciples themselves realized about Jesus in that experience, I can’t speak to that either. I am simply speaking as a person of faith reading this passage yet again and considering the manner in which our Lord sometimes chooses to help His beloved ones. We might want Jesus to stay with us in the particular manner we prefer, but He says no, you must go forward in the way I’m instructing you. We may want Him to appear in our midst, in our struggles, and take over the helm of the ship. He instead draws near and waits for us to recognize Him and call to Him.
God’s help, His saving grace and guiding hand, often come in surprising ways. He’s apt to choose the less obvious, the less understandable manner of meeting us on our wind tossed boats. And in every instance He commands, “Do not be afraid!” Do not fear! Trust in me! Know that I am here, that I, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, am available to you. I am here. Be not afraid.