I remember the story but not its source. It’s about a young woman’s appointment to serve as pastor of a small country church. This was the first time the church had been served by a female pastor. Among the congregation was a man who wished the prophet Joel had not said, “… your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 2:28-32). But the fact that his new pastor was a woman was not as bothersome as the assumption that she was not a fisherman. He had always taken his pastors fishing.
He, wanting to keep tradition, and she, seeking to please her new parishioner, found themselves planning a fishing excursion. She tried to fake it, but it quickly became evident to the fisherman that his pastor knew little about the sport. He had to help her bait the hook and show her how to cast a line, how to reel in the catch, and, of course, how to take the fish off the hook. His fishing was interrupted by her inexperience.
It was a chilly morning, and to add to his exasperation, she began to complain about the weather and regret that she had left a jacket in the car. “Well, I’ll just pull up anchor and take you back to shore to fetch your jacket.”
“Oh, no, that won’t be necessary,” she said. And with that she stepped out of the boat and walked across the water to the shore. The fisherman shook his head in disbelief and said to himself, “Wouldn’t you know it; she can’t swim, either.”
Let us think about swimming, fishing, and walking on water. Our character is not a nervous young pastor or a disgruntled parishioner but the disciple Peter — an impulsive, boisterous sort. He was a rugged fisherman who often cast upon his waters things which returned to embarrass or cause him regret. He did things he wished he hadn’t; said things he had to live with. When Jesus talked of the cross, it was Peter who wanted no theology of the cross. When Jesus said His disciples would disperse, Peter proclaimed, “I’ll never deny you!” But we know the cock did crow as Peter denied his Lord a third time.
Yet, through it all Peter sustained his faith. From his call as an apostle to his masterful sermon recorded in Acts, Peter kept the faith. He’s my kind of man. He’s our kind of person. We, too, can be impulsive — so sure one day and wondering the next, so willing to lay down our lives for our friends but then rejecting such notions — because there are few heroes and martyrs anymore. How was it that through all his failings and bunglings and other expressions of our humanity, Peter finally proved to be the Rock of faith Jesus nicknamed him?
John Killinger gave me an image to remember Peter’s faith by, a hook to hang these thoughts on. Peter swam toward Jesus.1 Swimming toward Jesus. On at least two occasions, it was a literal swimming. And throughout his life the figurative is there. Swimming toward Jesus. Moving in the direction of the Master. Concentrating on Christ. Focusing on faith in the Lord. Swimming toward Jesus.
You remember the first time after the feeding of the five thousand, when Jesus sent the disciples ahead. They got into a boat and started across the lake. Jesus went to pray. But then a storm came across the waters, the waves battered the boat, and the disciples were afraid. Yet Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.
While the other disciples got scared, Peter blurted out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” Peter stepped out of the boat, and as long as he focused all his attention on Jesus, he walked upon the waters. Then he noticed the wind that frightened him and he began to sink. “Lord, save me,” he cried.
Here I have the picture of Peter a short distance away from Jesus. As he began to sink, he started swimming. I hope this doesn’t strain the text too much but, as I let it speak to me, this passage gave me that image: Peter swimming between the boat and his Lord. So I asked the question, “Which way would I have swam?” Back to the security of what was? At least the boat was still afloat. Or would I have swam in faith toward Jesus? Peter swam, and frantically I think, toward Jesus who caught him and confronted him — and loved him still.
Peter may have doubted his own faith ability to keep walking but he never doubted Jesus’ faithfulness to save. I think brother Simon Peter learned an undergirding lesson that day. He learned that when it’s either sink or swim, swim — and swim toward Jesus. It’s a faith lesson that even if he or we sink in our doubt, despairing, or disappointment, swim toward Jesus. He is always there.
Remember the way the hymn writer expressed it?
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.2
The hymn will serve us well if we remember a couple of correctives. The shore is not always peaceful. If we are sinking, we can rise. And, yes, the Master will lift us to safety, but there will be other unsafe waters. Peter knew it.
He knew it because there were other times when he would sink. Even after that miraculous evidence of the faithfulness of Christ lifting Peter from his faithlessness, Peter still questioned, argued with, even denied his Lord. But he kept coming back. He kept swimming toward Jesus.
After his denial he went back to the upper room with the disciples. He could have thought it was the end and followed Judas to the place where Judas hanged himself. Peter could have given up completely. But he didn’t. When the women told them on Easter morning that the tomb was empty, that Christ was alive, Peter ran with John to the tomb. They wanted to see for themselves.
Peter was there when Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples later that day. They were out fishing and were as frustrated as a parishioner whose pastor doesn’t know how to fish. No fish after a night’s casting, but just after daybreak they heard a cry from the shore.
“Children, you have no fish, have you?” “No,” came the reply across the waters — apparently barren of fish.
“Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” It must have been a very frustrating fishing trip for the disciples to listen to an unrecognizable stranger. But you know the story — they couldn’t haul it in, it was such a catch.
John finally recognized the stranger. “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it, he put his clothes on (for the scripture states he had been naked) and jumped into the sea. They had toiled all night. Casting the net, dragging it in. Casting the net, dragging it in. Peter had to have been nearly at the point of physical exhaustion.
And the emotional upheaval of the days before — the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus; Peter’s denial; his guilt and fear; the resurrection appearances; the uncertainty about the future; the frustration of empty net after empty net. Add all this to his physical fatigue, and surely, surely he must have been completely washed out. Maybe that’s why he impulsively dove into the water one hundred yards away from shore — that’s a long swim in anybody’s pool.
Besides all this, he was swimming in his clothes. I’d rather fish with my clothes on and then skinny-dip than do as Simon Peter did — fish with no clothes on and put them on to swim. An emotionally and physically exhausted man weighted down with clothes — swimming toward Jesus. But he made it!
You see, he was swimming toward Jesus. His gaze was fixed on the Master. The Risen Christ was the target he aimed himself for through the churning sea and undertow. Swimming toward Jesus, he made it.
And we can make it, too, if we swim toward Jesus. Swimming toward Jesus is dragging yourself out of bed after a sleepless night and bravely facing the next day, even if that day looks darker for you than all your yesterdays. Swimming toward Jesus is diving into a situation where you may be attacked for getting involved, but you know you must, keeping ever before you your calling to follow a Master who led the way.
Swimming toward Jesus is following His commandment to love your neighbor and yourself when you can’t stand either one. Swimming toward Jesus is letting Him bless you in your grief because He said He would — even when you simply cannot understand your loss. Swimming toward Jesus is letting Him be so focused in your life that you really begin to believe you can have no anxiety about tomorrow, that nothing can separate you from His love, that you will be blessed when others persecute you, that if you seek His kingdom you’ll have what you need in the seeking, that He has gone before you to prepare a room in the house with many rooms. Swimming toward Jesus. The litany could continue, but there is another thought.
It came beautifully and powerfully in Frederick Buechner’s new novel The Wizard’s Tide.* This is a story about young Teddy Schroeder and his sister, nicknamed Bean. Buechner describes the sorrows and joys of a family struggling to find unity and love during the disastrous events of the Great Depression.
The scene I remember most is when the family and Teddy’s grandparents were at the beach. Teddy and his father were riding the waves and the father told Teddy that he was ready to swim out to the barrels. These barrels were quite a distance from shore and marked the place beyond which it was unsafe to swim. They were about half-way to the barrels, and I’ll pick up the narrative at this point.
“… Teddy thought the barrels still looked a long way off, and the beach was so far behind he could hardly recognize his mother and Bean sitting on it. His arms were beginning to ache, and he was feeling out of breath. What if he started to drown, he thought? What if he called for help and his father, who was a little ahead of him, didn’t hear? What if a giant octopus swam up from below and wrapped him in its slimy green tentacles?
“But just as he was thinking these things, his father turned around and treaded water, waiting for him.
“‘How about a lift the rest of the way?’ Mr. Schroeder said. So Teddy paddled over and put his arms around his father’s neck from behind, and that was the best part of the day for him and the part he remembered for many years afterward.
“He remembered how the sunlight flashed off his father’s freckly, wet shoulders and the feel of the muscles working inside them as he swam. He remembered the back of his father’s head and the way his ears looked from behind and the way his hair stuck out over them. He remembered how his father’s hair felt thick and wiry like a horse’s mane against his cheek and how he tried not to hold on to his neck too tightly for fear he’d choke him.
“His mother said bad things about his father. She said that he had no get-up-and-go and that he was worse than Grandpa Schroeder already, though thirty years younger. She said he needed a swift kick in the pants and things like that. And Teddy knew that his father did things that he wished he wouldn’t, like drink too many cocktails and drive his car up on the lawn, and come to kiss him and Bean goodnight with his face all clammy and cold.
“But as he swam out toward the barrels on his father’s back, he also knew that there was no place in the whole Atlantic Ocean where he felt so safe.”3
Maybe now the old hymn makes more sense.
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry;
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else
could help, love lifted me.4
You see, there are times when we can’t even swim anymore. We see him out there. We want so much to swim toward Him. But we can’t or won’t or don’t even care anymore.
But even then He lifts us.
And we are safe.
1. John Killinger, “Recovering from a Bad Beginning,” a published sermon, January 1, 1989.
2. James Rowe, “Love Lifted Me,” Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1975), no. 462.
3. Frederick Buechner, The Wizard’s Tide (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishing, 1990), pp. 45-46.
4. Rowe, Ibid.
*From The Wizard’s Tide by Frederick Buechner. Copyright (c) by Frederick Buechner. Used with permission from Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., San Francisco.

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