Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 43, No.1, Spring 2004 (© 2004)

ABSTRACT: The gospel story of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm has relevant implications for to day's world, especially in relation to social service.

KEY WORDS: Jesus; World War II; prayer; volunteer work; prison visits.

Mark's story in the New Testament of Jesus calming the storm is one of the most vivid and relevant in the Bible* [f.n.: Mark:4:25-41 and see also Matthew 8: 18-27 and Luke 8: 22-25]. The event occurred just after Jesus fed the multitudes in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Mark says that Jesus sent his disciples across the lake and went off to pray (John the Baptist had just been beheaded and Jesus may have wished to be alone to mourn his friend and cousin). But Jesus had an eye out for his disciples and saw that they were having trouble. The wind was against them and had built up into a storm. So Jesus went to them, walking on the water, and they were understandably frightened. He reassured them, got into the boat, and the storm stopped. The disciples were amazed.

This story may seem far away and long ago, having little to do with us. In fact, it is a story that can touch us deeply-any of us, perhaps especially those of us who have had the unforgettable experience of being on the sea or a large lake in a storm. Such storms create a sense of helplessness as great as any we can know. We can also understand that Jesus was watching over his friends and had compassion on them as they struggled to manage their boat in the storm. He knew they were afraid, as we would be in a similar situation.

Then Mark says that Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the sea, and here we probably divide into two groups. One says, "Hallelujah, Jesus walked on the water," and the other says "I don't believe it." I do not want to argue with either group, because I believe in a greater miracle than that of Jesus walking on the water; I believe in the miracle that He is alive today.

This miracle first became clear to me when I was 17 years old. Attending a conference for young men interested in the ministry. I was there even though

The Rev. Stephen J. Chinlund, an Episcopal priest, is Executive Director of Episcopal Social Services, an organization that welcomes volunteers to help those in need. He preached a version of this article at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City on July 27,2003. For more information about Episcopal Social Services please see www.episcopalsocialservices.org.

I had not grown up in a religious home, had never attended even a single Sunday school class. It was the 1950s. During the years that had just passed I had shared my parents' horror ofthe war, and particularly ofthe Holocaust. I was frightened, and I wanted more strength than any living person I knew could provide. In my fear of death I turned to God.

So I went to the conference and the skillful leader made some good points and led some valuable discussions. Then suddenly I found myself in a circle of ten or twelve, and the leader said it was time for each of us to pray out loud. He was urging us to give ourselves to God. That was just what I wanted to do, but I was absolutely terrified. The leader said, "Just pray to God, as much as you know Him, and give yourself, as much as you know yourself."

The prayers began. Many of the conference participants sounded as if they had prayed out loud before, but I certainly had not. Agonizing silences separated the prayers. When it was my turn I thought my heart would burst. Finally I stammered an incoherent prayer to Jesus. The most frightening thing for me was that I felt that He was there, listening, paying attention to my pathetic murmuring.

That was fifty two years ago. The seventeen year old boy at that conference saw a world full of suffering: torture victims, refugees, people wounded by firebombs, children orphaned by war, the threat of nuclear destruction. Yet when it was revealed to him that the Church is the living Body of Christ on earth, he found he could respond to suffering as he imagined Christ responding.

I have been through storms since then and may yet experience a truly dark night of the soul that will be the ultimate test of faith, but I feel His presence now with the same strength I did all those years ago.

I remember volunteering in a hospital one summer. I was allowed to do things I should not have been allowed to do. There was a man, Tony, with an open bed sore on his back which the nurse showed me how to bathe and medicate. Tony and I got to be friends. By the end of the summer the sore had finally closed. I said goodbye to Tony, and he thanked me, saying he felt much better. "But you know," he said, "now that you are leaving, my bedsore will come back." I asked the nurse if that was true. She said it probably was. This was an important lesson. If a person has a vocation to relieve suffering it does not mean that everything will be all right because of the care given. The important thing is to be faithful to the vocation.

So, to fast-forward to my present work. Episcopal Social Services is a boat for thousands of people every year. They come to us frightened. The storms in their lives threaten to overwhelm them. I remember a little boy-call him "Johnny"-who was five years old. His father was gone, and his mother beat him badly and unpredictably. He had been removed by the court from his mother's home and was cowering in a corner of our office, when his mother came in for a supervised visit. She was angry that Johnny looked so frightened. She yelled at him for being afraid. Our workers had to separate them. The mother refused to leave without her son. We tried to convince her that first she would need to stop using drugs and begin to learn how to be a good mother. Finally we had to call the police because ofthe violent storm Johnny's mother was causing. Johnny's experience of the "storm" was internal. Like all children, he wanted to love and be loved by his mother, but he was terrified to be left alone with her.

Johnny's story has a happy ending, unlike Tony's bedsore. His mother went into drug rehab for a year and a half, ending her dependence on drugs. She also went for parenting training and therapy. It took a long time, but Johnny is safely back with his mother. We continue to monitor their situation. Working for Episcopal Social Services there are always new opportunities to calm the storms that threaten people not strong enough to manage their boats alone.

One of the greatest satisfactions arising from this work comes when the people we seek to serve actually minister to us. Recently a worker was leaving our office for the day with tears in her eyes. I asked her what was wrong. "I'm working with a little girl named Michelle," she said. "She's only six years old. Her mother's boyfriend beats her up and yells at her. But he hits her so it won't show, and it has been impossible so far to catch him. I try to take care of her. She's an amazing, brave little girl, and it breaks my heart to be so helpless to shelter her. She was crying today, and I started crying with her. Michelle stopped first and looked at me. with her big eyes and said, 'Don't worry Tania; I'll be OK,' and I really think she will. Meantime, I had a quarrel with my boyfriend, and just now I thought, if Michelle can handle her load I sure ought to be able to handle mine."

It is important to note that in the Gospel story of the storm, when Jesus got into the boat the wind ceased. He did not do anything. I take nothing away from Jesus when I invite you to think of the times when you were in the middle of one of your storms and someone came to be with you-not to preach a sermon or to pray even, but just to be with you, listening peacefully-and the winds of your storm died down.

So it is often when I go to prison as part of the work of Episcopal Social Services. The importance of just being there cannot be overestimated. Many of the prisoners have committed terrible violent crimes many years ago as, by their own admission, thoughtless, wild, and desperate kids. Now, 10 or 20 years later, they are utterly different human beings.

I had the pleasure not long ago of taking Sam Waterston with me to two different prisons. In both places the men were clearly deeply moved that Sam Waterston, D.A. Jack McCoy from Law and Order, would come to see them in prison. Many of the men had been abandoned as children and now were abandoned in a new way in prison, hours from home with families who had stopped writing or visiting. And there was Sam Waterston, personification of the shining and successful world out there far away, actually coming to see them. At the end of the second meeting, Sam was asked by one of the men for his reaction to the visit. He looked around at the twenty men in the room, more than half of them convicted of homicide, and said, "I'm astonished." His eyes were wide. "I do not know any place but this one where twenty men are sitting around with full attention to each other, considering the most important aspects of life." The men gathered around after the meeting to thank ]riIn for coming and walked away smiling. Sam had come to be on board their little boats, and for a while the storms of their lives had calmed down.

After his prison visits, Sam said that he felt all filled up with energy. I, and many people not famous like Sam, have felt the same way. In fact, I feel that I encounter the body of Christ in prison as I do in no other place. After all, JesUS said, "I was in prison and ye ,"sited me." How amazing that Jesus said we are visiting Him when we visit a prisoner.

I am here to rejoice with you, then-to give thanks for you when you have sat in someone's little boat and helped calm the storms threatening it. You have all done this from time to time. We are all in the same boat: Jesus, Peter, Judas, we, all together. We all have our storms, real or imagined. Thanks be to God Jesus is always there, not to do our bidding, but ready to guide us through new, uncharted waters.