He grunts heavily, pushing hard on the weathered, wooden stern of the fishing boat. He hears John straining on the other side, muttering something unintelligible. The small craft slowly leaves the beach, floating easily once the water gets under the stern. Quickly the two men half-dive and crawl over the gunnels, rocking the boat from side-to-side. James, Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Judas are already pulling on the oars. Matthew is looking a little perplexed. Peter points to an open space and nods. Relieved, Matthew scrambles over to the spot and tries to get into a rowing rhythm with the others.
Peter smiles at John who grins back. The look they share tells of their growing fondness for the tax collector, even if he doesn’t know anything about fishing – or boats.
“So how’s He gonna get to Capernaum?”
Peter glances at John who is looking back at the retreating shore.
“I dunno. He could have someone sail Him out to us or He might get a ride around on the shore road. He’s got His own way of doin’ things. We’ll just wait for Him if we beat Him there. You in a big hurry, Thunder?”
“Not me. I’m full of bread’n’fish and lookin’ for a good night’s sleep. Might even sleep in ‘til dawn.”
The rowers chuckle as John and Peter take their places. Everyone falls into a slow, easy pull as the talk subsides, the conversations replaced with the quiet sounds of creaking wood, a light breeze, and parting water. The shore and the sun soon disappear, replaced by a rising moon and the early stars. James, John’s brother, feels it first.
“Where’d that wind come from?”
John glances back at him and feels it, too. Looking up at the moon, he sees a few fast-moving clouds go past it.
“Peter. Whaddaya think?”
Everyone has stopped rowing and eleven pairs of eyes look at the big man near the stern.
“I think it’s almost as far back as it is forward. If it stays like this, we’ll be okay.”
John nods while looking at James, who goes back to work. The rowing begins to take on more urgency as the wind pushes the waves higher. Each time the small, bright moon pops out between clouds they catch glimpses of small, white-capped waves glinting silver in the brief light.
Wind and waves gradually become more intense, like the choreographed crescendo of dances they’ve known since childhood. The fishermen among them know there is no celebration in this dance. Even Matthew can feel it.
Peter turns his head to bellow against the wind’s growing howl.
“Keep her nose into the wind. We turn, we sink.”
He sees John give him a grim nod. He forces a smile, nods back, and pulls hard on his oar.
The waves become quick, wet hills that tax their strength. The spray drenches them as they methodically pull and lift the oars. The wind roughly flips wet hair, sending a chill through wet clothes and deep into hearts.
Time stops. No one can remember how long they’ve been rowing. Life has been condensed into a simple rhythm. Lift...pull...lift...pull. No conversation. No banter. There is just pain; the pain of aching backs, leaden arms, and burning hands. Lift...pull...lift...
Matthew sees it first. He stops rowing to roughly rub his eyes. Then he screams.
Eleven weary heads turn to where Matthew points. Twelve sets of eyes go wide, the rowing forgotten. The moon spotlights a figure just a stone’s throw behind the boat and off to one side. The howling wind doesn’t disturb its long hair or robe as it walks on the only calm, flat patch of water for miles. The deliberate, relaxed stride is smoothly efficient as the figure begins to catch up to the boat.
“It’s a GHOST!”
“Great God – HELP US!”
“GET ON THE OARS! GET ON THE OARS NOW!”
Peter’s voice jolts them back to reality. Oars bite the water while eyes watch the figure move alongside the boat. The moonlight and the broken, scudding mass of clouds make the figure seem to blink off, then on.
John shouts over the wind.
“IT’S THE MASTER!”
Peter stops rowing. Quickly he crawls over to grip the side of the tossing boat, his eyes straining to see. The figure turns its head, looks at Peter, and smiles.
Peter’s heart leaps against his ribs. He recognizes that smiling face as it slowly turns away. The figure continues to walk past them.
Peter knows what he must do. His choice erupts from knowledge ingested through months of interaction. That choice now becomes a reflexive act. He must follow. Wherever that takes him doesn’t matter. He has to follow. Peter screams against the wind.
“LORD, IF IT’S YOU – TELL ME TO COME OUT THERE!”
The figure stops. Jesus turns to face the boat. Moonlight spotlights His huge smile. Chuckling, He stretches out His arm as He motions with His hand.
Peter leaps from the boat, vaulting smoothly over the side to land lightly on his feet. He walks toward Jesus, his eyes locked on that glowing smile. The Master’s laugh penetrates the storm, making Peter grin back.
A gust of wind lashes wet hair across an eye. Peter blinks at the sting, quickly brushing it away. And now he sees the sea.
His world slams into slow motion. Every sense is heightened. He smells the sea, that peculiar life-death smell of water, plants, and fish. He hears the faint cries from the boat, the hissing sound of the waves, and the howling of the wind. He feels his feet getting wet, his toes starting to drag through the water. He is sinking. Terrified, he tries to run. The water grabs at his knees. He feels it move up to his waist. Looking to the side, he sees a ponderous, massive wave bearing down on him, the moonlight igniting the foam along its edge into a deadly white flame.
There’s only one thing to do. He reaches out as far as he can before the water covers his face. He uses his last breath to scream.
“LORD, SAVE ME!”
The world disappears. He is in darkness, a wet darkness that suffocates him. He sinks, weighted down by the obvious truth that dooms a fisherman without a boat in an angry sea. Suddenly his hand feels a grip so strong it startles him. He rockets out of the darkness, the force causing him to swallow water. He blinks - and there is the smiling face of Jesus. They are face-to-face as Jesus laughs softly.
“My Peter of little faith. Don’t doubt!”
Peter drops his hands to his knees, coughing violently while standing on the only calm, flat piece of water for miles. Jesus slaps him gently on the back until the coughing subsides. Peter sheepishly looks at his Master, not knowing why he feels so ashamed. Jesus puts His arm over the soaked fisherman, squeezing and tussling Peter in a playful way.
“Believe, Peter. Just believe. C’mon. Let’s get you in a boat.”
The others have been rowing hard to maintain position. All oars stop moving as the two men step into the boat. No one speaks. Simon is the first to notice.
“Wha . . .?”
His look of bewilderment appears on eleven other faces.
The setting moon is mirrored by a flat, waveless sea. The cacophony of wind is gone, replaced by a deafening calm. The eastern horizon is glowing with the red-gold blush of dawn.
All eyes but two grew wider still as the bow of the boat grounds itself into land.
Peter turns slowly to look at the shore, touching his soaked clothes to remind himself of what had just happened. That infectious, familiar laugh turns everyone’s eyes to the same spot.
“Welcome to Capernaum.” smiles Jesus, “You gentlemen have had quite the night.”
The Master lightly jumps over the side into shallow, still water. He rests His hands on the boat while looking lovingly at His men - men He will die for as they will die for Him. Still smiling, He nods toward shore.
“C’mon. Let’s get some breakfast.”