“When they had rowed about three or four miles,
they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat,
and they began to be afraid.
But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”
They wanted to take him into the boat,
but the boat immediately arrived at the shore
to which they were heading.” (Jn 6:19-21)
In this passage, the apostles have an extraordinary encounter with Jesus. Jesus, the person whom they knew as a teacher, friend, and an embodied human being, is walking on water. The Gospel author emphasizes that the men have been rowing for three or four miles, so they are not close to the shore at which they began. Suddenly, Jesus appears to them in a way they have never seen him before, and it frightens them. They want to bring Jesus into the boat. They want to normalize the situation, to assimilate the unfamiliar Jesus into their picture of who he is and what “ought” to be happening. But Jesus does not get into the boat. Instead the boat is brought to shore “immediately,” suggesting that either the apostles did not notice that they were already near their destination, or that they, too, have participated in an extraordinary passage across the water as a result of being carried by God’s action.
God’s breaking in and offering what is extraordinary and not capable of being captured by ordinary categories is also a feature of our encounters with God. Many mystical writers report experiencing God’s presence in prayer as loving , kind, tender, but also in other ways alien and unfamiliar in a way where they are aware of the mystery and otherness of God beyond. God is both familiar and can be known in some ways, but also draws us into God’s otherness. This can happen outside of formal prayer, too, when we encounter something unfamiliar in others. In mutual relationship, we don’t want only to assimilate God into our being, but to recognize that we are beings who live in and are touched and shaped by a God who is greater. God wants to act within us but also to bring us into God’s mystery, to be known by us, just as lovers and beloveds want mutually to know one another.
Recognizing and experiencing the God who cannot be assimilated but who opens up and transforms us according to God’s being can feel vulnerable. However, Jesus assures his friends, “Do not be afraid.” To me, the disciples’s being brought to the shore is a sign that God is bringing them to where they need to be. It’s an encouragement to trust in God that as we go through transitions and encounter God in both the ordinary and extraordinary, God will bring us to the other side. There we will find anxiety dispelled, and in God’s presence, encounter joy.