Walking on Water

By Alice Vining

In early Sunday School I was wide-eyed at Mrs. Pierce’s story of Jesus walking on water. Jesus, the miracle. Jesus, a magician. Holy, holy, holy.

I had to hide from Mrs. Pierce and the World my bad thoughts about that Jesus. I envied, I coveted things that He could do but I could not, no matter how hard I tried.

“Thou shalt not covet… .”

I got a gold star for being the first in the class to recite those “Not” commandments. If I even asked a question about water-walking, my status in Sunday School would have been blown to smithereens. Best to doubt not.

But a few years later at Squam Lake, I found out by mistake that I could sort of walk on water and I loved the attention I got. I was learning to aquaplane, as the first step to water skiing. As a preteen chubette, my weight was exactly perfect to the ounce to balance the five horsepower motor on our pokey outboard motor boat. When Pa in the stern put the throttle of the motor on full speed ahead, I could crouch, then stand up on the aquaplane being towed behind. The boat roared and bucked and tried its best but couldn’t move forward and thus pulled me, a perfect counterweight to its speed, to my magical standing position until, until…Jesus Christ! I was standing up, walking, even dancing on deep water in mid-lake! I couldn’t go forward, but I couldn’t sink either! This earned me almost as much mileage as those Ten Commandments.

I remember musing at the time about Jesus on the water, but I didn’t tell anyone because that might have seemed like blasphemy. I wanted to Believe.

My older sister Eda once told me that Robert E. Lee, the handsome horseman in that equestrian statue we drove by every day on Monument Avenue, walked on water.

“He did NOT,” I said.

“Did, too, ” she said.

“Mrs. Pierce, my Sunday School teacher, told me that was JESUS, and she should know.”

“Humph, Smarty Pants,” my sister said. End of conversation.

Probably I stuck out my tongue, or we both did.

But little did she or anyone know that I already was a Deep-seated Doubter, looking for ways to doubt.

The silence between sisters became unbearable.

“Genny Lee must have been magic, too, kinda like Jesus,” I piped up.

“Look, the saddle on Traveler has no girth.”

I had just started taking riding lessons at Mr. Todd’s Stable on Libbie Avenue and had learned to cinch up my pony on Day One. My sister didn’t even know how to ride. I knew a thing or two about girths.

That statue of Lee on Traveler that was taken down last week in Richmond has no girth. I think the sculptor just plain forgot, and nobody ever noticed but me. Lord only knows how Lee or his saddle was supposed to stay put.

Grownups talked about Lee, my first cousin, one of  “my people” from way back, as if he was practically God, and if he rode into those battles with no girth, he was surely a saint, or close to it. No doubt about that!  Traveler must’ve been one saint of a horse, too. No wonder he was stuffed, bone, hair, and all, and standing tall and big as life, unrestrained by saddle or bridle, in obedience to his Master, in the vestibule of the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University when I last visited that sacred place. Lee, recumbent, life-sized, carved in white marble, lay upon the altar in the chancel, just up the aisle.

So the mystique about heroes lives on or gets rewired or taken down. Untruths and near-truths become truths to those who want to believe. Then there comes a time, a moment of Truth, if Truth be told. Yet it needn’t be an all or nothing Truth. There is always room for three-dimensionality and a sense of wonder.

I grew up and went North to college and learned the power of stories. I can remember how it felt when one of my myths was debunked. I took a course called “ The Bible as History.” The textbook was full of facts like what the strange winds and weather were on the day the Red Sea parted. That should have been enough to seed my doubts, but then I read on: in those days there was a natural sand bar where Jesus and his disciples were fishing, pulling in those fish to go with loaves that 5,000 hungry people, stranded on shore without a net or a boat, were hiding in their baskets. I could just imagine their awe when Jesus stepped from his boat onto sandy, solid land that was invisible to them, just an inch below the surface of the water. The Master walked on water and did not sink! Of course those people shared their bread!

It’s a wonderful story, a parable-like story and that‘s the point: it has been comforting for two thousand years.

I didn’t sink on my aquaplane that day at Squam either!

Why today did this particular memory flood my mind?

I was sitting by my pond throwing sticks in the water to persuade our puppy that he was born knowing how to swim, which is true, but he didn’t know it yet. He didn’t believe! I noticed that he was most interested in the water bugs, the water boatmen, who were skimming and dancing on the skin of the water. Walking on water! He waded in to try to catch one. And yes, he found out how water bugs can run on water, and he found out the unbelievable fact that he could SWIM and not sink.

Absolutely and completely miraculous, impossible yet possible. Huckleberry lost interest in the waterboatmen and swam around in circles, showing off his newfound swimming prowess to me and to himself.

“ Thou shalt not covet…,” I thought, beginning to recite from memory, “but, my God, wouldn’t it be awesome if I could covet just enough to do THAT, walk and run like the water bugs, and swim as joyfully as a puppy just discovering his body and the miracles of the whole world.“

Some things are hard to believe. Some are soft. It depends on the eye and ear and heart of the beholder.

1 comment on Walking on Water

  • Don Watson

    This is a neat read…surprise and delight that such stories now come to surface of the well…primed for another.

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