“And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea . . . And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”” Matthew 14:25, 28-29
One of my favorite miracles of Jesus is when he walks on water. Not many things in nature can boast of being able to walk on water like Jesus did. Small insects like water striders can walk on water, and things that are light in weight can float on the surface of water. But nothing quite near the magnitude of a human can walk on water, unless of course the water is in its solid rather than liquid state.
Perhaps one of the most impressive organisms is the basilisk lizard, also known as the Jesus Christ lizard. At first glance, it doesn’t look like something that would float, let alone be able to walk on water. Its hard armored exterior, long tail and claws make it look more like a bulky prehistoric dinosaur than a graceful sprinter. Yet, it walks, or rather, runs on water.
In order for a human to walk on water like the basilisk, we would need to run about 67 miles per hour—that’s as fast as a cheetah! In other words, it’s humanly impossible. And yet, we read in Scripture about the miracle of Jesus walking on water. Was it just a metaphor and literary device in the story, or was it really a miracle?
As a Christian and scientist, I believe it can be both. There are spiritual principles that the story can teach us by itself, even if it is just a story. But, I believe it is more than a story. When we read about miracles like Jesus walking on water, we shouldn’t see these accounts as simple declarative statements with periods at the end that don’t invite conversation. The miracles of Jesus are an invitation and opportunity for us to bring our curiosity, wonder, and questions to the table, and even a little science.
Let’s start with some science. So how exactly does the basilisk walk on water? It has a lot to do with its speed. If it weren’t for its speed, the basilisk lizard would not be able to walk on water due to its bulkier size and weight. The downward force of gravity on the lizard would exert a pressure strong enough to break through the surface tension of the water. However, basilisks use their muscular legs to propel themselves rapidly across the water surface. Each stroke of its leg touches and pushes against the surface of the water so fast that it doesn’t break through. Instead, tiny air pockets build up on top of the water which keep the lizard on top and propel it forward, despite the downward pull of gravity. They can walk on water for up to several meters before gravity takes over, forcing them to switch from walking on water to swimming in water. Sounds a little like Peter…
In order for a human to walk on water we’d have to increase the surface tension of water, weaken the force of gravity, become less dense ourselves, or as stated earlier, run as fast as a cheetah. Considering the necessary biological parameters that would need to be met in order to make a miracle possible (based on current scientific knowledge) makes miracles like this all the more fascinating to me. Science and the laws of nature, while constraining, provide me with a backdrop and context in which to probe further and deeper into the mind of God.
And when I pair science with a close reading of Scripture, I find even more to unpack and take away. The moment the disciples see Jesus walking on water, they become terrified and believe that they are seeing a ghost. After Jesus identifies himself to the disciples, Peter vocalizes what perhaps the other disciples are too afraid to acknowledge: he is not yet convinced that it is Jesus walking on water. Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”
What I like about this particular passage is that Peter speaks like a modern scientist, making a bold yet conditional “if” statement, essentially formulating a very basic hypothesis: If this is possible and can be done, and if you are who you say you are, then I should be able to do this too. And he does. This miraculous story becomes two-fold, one of Jesus and Peter walking on water.
Of course, if we read further, we see that Peter manages only to walk on water a short distance before sinking because of his little faith. But the part of the story I am most drawn to is the conversation that happens between Peter and Jesus, and the beautiful miracle that is able to happen, even with just a little faith, and even if for just a little while.
Reading the story closely, we see that it isn’t Jesus who initially invites Peter to join him walking on water, but it's Peter who invites himself, or rather asks Jesus to invite him: “If it's you, command me to come to you on water.” Jesus’ invitation is merely a direct response and answer to Peter’s own words. In inviting Peter to join him on the water, Jesus is affirming his own identity to Peter.
I can imagine Peter being afraid just like the rest of the disciples, especially the moment he first steps out of the boat, but it is admirable how he responds courageously and confidently to Jesus’ call to “Come” — knowing that it was Jesus who was calling him, and he who had asked to be called.
Are you, dear reader, asking God any conditional “if” hypothesis-style questions like Peter did? What would it look like for you to invite this style of questions into your prayer life? Are you ready to respond like Peter did and accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come”?
I know I personally can struggle in my own prayer life to ask these types of questions, perhaps because I am afraid of what the answer or response might be. Or perhaps I fear that I am limiting God by adding my own conditional constraints to how he works. But this story shows us that something miraculous can happen when we ask such questions, and that Jesus is ready to respond to our deepest questions, affirming who he is in the midst of our fears, and picking us back up the moment we start to sink.
The basilisk lizard walks on water, and it gives us insight into the time when Jesus and Peter did. Isn’t it a miracle that God loves creation so much that even a strange-looking lizard can teach us spiritual truths?
Photo by Ciara Reyes-Ton