When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they began to be afraid. But he said to them, "It is I. Do not be afraid."
This story in John 6 clearly represents a transition; the question is, "to what?" In the synoptic gospels "the storm at sea" usually reminds us of the great distress the early Church suffered as it became a gentile religion.
Founded by a Jewish Messiah who gathered Jewish disciples, they were astonished and profoundly disappointed that more Jews did not accept Jesus and were not baptized. They had supposed his sending them from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth meant visiting every synagogue in the vast Roman empire, which they did from India to Spain and Britain. But not many Jews accepted the faith, and many gentiles did.
By the time the Gospel of Saint John was written, around 100 AD, the new Christian religion had separated from Judaism and would never be reconciled. So where are we going now, as Jesus walks on the water toward his foundering disciples? And why doesn't he get in the boat?
The story is intentionally placed between his feeding five thousand men -- no mention of women or children -- and his sermons about the Bread of Life. The five thousand might have been a formidable army, especially if they were led by a messiah who could feed thousands with a loaf of bread, heal the wounded and raise the dead! But Jesus fled up the mountain and escaped that ridiculous prospect. He did not reappear to his disciples until they found him walking on the lake in a storm, and to the crowds until they found him back in Capernaum. (Of course they'll want to know "how did you get here?" because they cannot see the signs Jesus is doing or make sense of his mission.)
I think this story is about transition but it's not about a Jewish religion become gentile; it concerns the challenge of the Eucharist. It's about his strange pronouncement, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part in me!"
You'll also recall his angry remark to Peter, "If I do not wash your feet, you have no part in me."
Can we follow Jesus into these unfathomable depths where he must use words of slavery and cannibalism to explain his love for us? We're not going to understand with our rational minds what is happening, and when people ask "the reason for your hope" we're not going to know what to say.
An older man once invited me, a very young man, into a relationship that -- I know now -- was totally inappropriate. Young and naive, I didn't know what to make of it but -- Thank God -- I was wise enough to politely decline the offer.
Perhaps there is a comparison here. It's not around the illegality of the old man's offer, but the fear I had of entering such an imbalanced relationship. I would have been swallowed morally and psychologically.
The Lord invites us also into a relationship that is at least frightening; his words are daunting. And yet he is worthy of our trust and his courtesy is boundless. He invites without coercion or threat. His hand is upon our feet as he washes them and, intimidated as we are, we cannot pull back. We might even make a joke of it, as Peter does, "Wash not only my feet but my whole body!"
Where is this going? Peter certainly didn't know.
Suddenly the boat came aground and the disciples reached the opposite shore although, only minutes before, they had been three or four miles across an eight miles lake. We will have to make this crossing many times as we continue to explore the mystery of Communion.