Night had fallen. The Twelve sat in a boat waiting for the return of their master. Jesus had just fed over 5,000 people, some of whom decided to make him king. But that was neither his plan nor his Father’s, so he packed the disciples into the boat and went up on a mountain by himself to pray. When the disciples figured they had waited for Jesus long enough, they set out for Capernaum without him.
Sudden squalls were common on the Sea of Galilee; high winds would sweep over the surrounding hills and into the lake below, whipping the water into waves. That night, the sea was rough, and the disciples strained at the oars.
By the time the disciples had rowed a few miles out into the lake, Jesus came to them, walking on the surface of the water.
They were terrified. After all, they had never seen anything like this before, not even from Jesus. To them, there was only one explanation possible: it was a ghost, and it was coming to get them. They began screaming like…well, like something other than seasoned Galilean fishermen.
But from that strange apparition came a familiar voice and words of reassurance: “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:20, NRSV). And at that point, John tells us, they were all too happy to take Jesus into the boat with them.
John’s account of the miracle is frustratingly brief. He tells us, for example, that the disciples are afraid, but doesn’t say why. For that, we have to draw from Matthew or Mark (Matt 14:26; Mark 6:49); they are the ones who tell us that the Twelve thought they were seeing a ghost.
All three accounts (Luke doesn’t have one), however, relate the choppiness of the water, the disciples’ reaction of fear when they see Jesus, and Jesus’ words of reassurance. As the NRSV and other versions translate, Jesus announces, “It is I” — or more colloquially, perhaps, “Hey guys, it’s just me.”
But the phrase can also be translated “I am” (as in the CEB). In other words, Jesus may be saying more than just “It’s me”: the phrase is the way the Hebrew of the divine name “I AM” is rendered into Greek. This is particularly significant in the gospel of John, in which Jesus utters a whole collection of “I am” sayings that express his divinity.
Jesus, of course, would not have spoken to the disciples in Greek, so we are left to wonder what he actually said to them (in Aramaic). But it’s hard to escape the echo of divinity in Jesus’ words, particularly in the context of John’s gospel.
And when we’re rowing in rough waters and afraid, there is nothing better to hear than the reassurance of God’s presence.
But is that what the disciples heard?
I believe it is, at least to some extent. As the gospels attest over and over, they never completely understood what they heard from Jesus. But the episode definitely made an impression on them. And for that, we’ll need to look at a part of the story that John doesn’t tell. More on that in the next post.