On March 23, 2021 a container ship, the Ever Given, sailing from Malaysia to the Netherlands entered the Suez Canal and proceeded on its way for about two hours. Up until that point it was a routine transit through the canal.
Suddenly a dust storm developed with exceedingly high winds and the Ever Given was blown off course. The ship was knocked sideways and ended up wedged between the banks of the canal. Here in Ontario we woke up to the news that the Suez Canal was blocked and therefore closed to all maritime traffic. We saw satellite pictures of a flotilla of ships just waiting at either end of the canal and heard ideas about ways to free the ship.
News of the Ever Given was a welcome break from Covid news and there was intense interest around the world in the efforts to free the ship. People who had never previously thought about either shipping or the Suez Canal suddenly became experts on both. During the stoppage, which lasted about six days, I checked the news regularly to see what was happening.
Many people saw in the Ever Given’s plight a metaphor for life, at one moment you are sailing along on a clearly defined course towards a destination but then something unexpected happens and you are blown off course. Suddenly you realize that you are stuck somewhere you don’t want to be and everything you thought was going to happen is now in question.
The experience of Covid has been like that for many of us. But life before Covid was also like that although Covid has sharpened the edges of our experience. Sudden illness, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a marriage, a global pandemic – all of these things can blow us off course and leave us feeling stuck in unfamiliar places. Our expectations are upended.
In the fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel we read a story about another boat, another storm and another experience of expectations being upended. The sea of Galilee (in reality a large lake) is regularly mentioned in the gospel of Mark. Jesus calls his very first disciples while passing along beside the sea, he walks beside the sea, teaches beside the sea, teaches crowds on land while sitting in a boat on the water and, travels back and forth across the sea.
Our story begins, at the end of a day teaching beside the sea, when Jesus says to his disciples ‘let us go across to the other side’. The journey, and the sea, are known quantities. The disciples no doubt assumed this voyage across the sea would proceed like all the others. However, a windstorm comes up and the waves are so high the boat is swamped. Jesus is asleep and the disciples panic. And in their fear and panic they are convinced not only that they are dying but that Jesus doesn’t care what happens to them.
Remember at least four of Jesus disciples were fishermen from the shores of that very Sea of Galilee. Maybe the storm is so bad that even the experienced fishermen are frightened. Maybe life with Jesus until now has felt like smooth sailing – Jesus teaches, he heals, he exorcises demons – Jesus appears to be in command of every situation.
Jesus upends the disciples’ expectations. The disciples are sure they are going to drown. In both good times and bad we often behave as if we know the ending of our own stories. If things are going well then, we anticipate they will continue; when things go sideways then we are convinced that everything is lost, life is over, we’re finished and God doesn’t care or has forgotten us.
Jesus wakes up, rebukes the wind and tells the sea to ‘be still’. The wind stops blowing and there is a ‘dead calm’. And in that stillness and calm Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ I don’t think Jesus is saying that if the disciples only had faith they wouldn’t be afraid. I hear Jesus’s question to the disciples as a question about relationship, specifically their relationship with him. The disciples have been with Jesus for a period of time. They have heard him teach, they have seen him heal and exorcise demons. They have seen and heard the reaction of the crowds to Jesus – the sense that Jesus is something different from anything seen before. But in this moment, they respond as if they don’t know Jesus at all. And I think that is why I hear Jesus saying ‘after all this time you still don’t know me?’ The disciples have experienced Jesus in part, in fragments but they have not yet been privileged to see the whole, to put the pieces together.
When I was a little girl in Sunday School I wished I could have been one of Jesus’s disciples. I thought how great it would have been to hear him teaching, to see him perform miracles and to just spend time in Jesus’s presence. I was also convinced that I would be a much better disciple than the sorry lot we read about in the New Testament. I had to get a little bit older before I realized that I have knowledge the disciples didn’t. I know how the story ends. The disciples were living it while we have the luxury of reading the story. We are able to see the whole picture while the disciples only saw glimpses.
While we have an advantage over the disciples we are in the very same situation as they were. We are living our stories and we can never see the whole picture. We see only in part. My late father used to pray for my brothers and me that we would ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’. It’s almost a direct quote from 2 Peter chapter 3 but my father added the word ‘love’. And I think he was on to something.
The more we get to know and love God and the more we internalize the reality that we ourselves are known and loved by the one who creates, redeems and sustains the better equipped we will be when life suddenly goes sideways. After all we were never promised that we would never be blown off course but we were promised that God will never leave us or forsake us.