When the Lord came toward the Apostles, walking on the sea, they cried out, “It is a ghost!” Of course, they called him a ghost because a mere mortal could not walk on water. There was however, another reason for their thinking him to be a ghost. That reason is that this whole Gospel incident of facing the ultimate trial is meant to be taken as a parable. The river in storm stands for the hold that death will take on each of us, and Jesus walking to us on the water is the Gospel’s way of telling us that Jesus will be there for us at the hour of death.
That meaning of the story becomes clear when we note that the sea in the story was really a wide place in the Jordan River. (Eight miles south of Jacksonville there is s wide place in the St. John River that is called Lake George.) Crossing that Jordan River will always have a secondary meaning of crossing through death to the life beyond.
This meaning of today’s Gospel becomes clearer if we connect it with Chapter Three of the Book of Joshua. That chapter picks up the story of the Israelites who had wandered through the desert for forty year, but who at last had come to the bank of the Jordan, ready to pass over into the Promised Land. They came up against a problem: the melted snows of Lebanon had turned the Jordan into a churning half-mile-wide torrent.
At God’s command, Joshua put the priests carrying the ark at the bank of the river, facing into the flood. Then he had the thousands of Israelites line up four abreast in a line behind the ark. At his order the priests carrying the ark headed into the river, with the line of people following them in.
With that, the river backed up, allowing the procession to proceed through the river bed. When the priests with the ark had reached the bottom of the riverbed they took a stand, allowing the long procession of the Israelites to file past them up onto the bank of the Promised Land.
Today’s Gospel tells us that when we come to pass through the river of death Jesus on the cross, replacing the priests with the ark, will be taking a stand midway through death, allowing us to pass by to life beyond.