Drowning, the Untrustworthy Sea, and Salvation

Many of my favorite Bible stories are Jesus on the sea stories—Jesus walking on water, Jesus sleeping in a sinking boat, stilling a sea-born storm, Jesus preaching from the surf. 

For thousands of years mankind has distrusted the sea. It’s beautiful and bountiful, murderous and maniacal. In literature, the sea stands as a symbol for chaos—a representative of the unordered, unpredictable world. Man, pounded by the waves, torn by riptides, drowning, looks to the sea for words to describe his predicament.

Several years ago my dad and I went surfing at Zuma beach in California. I wasn’t much of a surfer. He wasn’t too great either. But this was one of our first family vacations since my brother had died and we wanted to do something he’d have wanted to do. So we surfed.

Unfortunately, we picked the wrong stretch of beach. We found out later that the spot we’d selected was home to national and international surfing competitions. Waves there are feet higher than waves a mile in either direction. Also, the ocean floor there is littered with rocks, a serious hazard for surfers.

But we didn’t know that.

Already emotional thinking about my brother, I paddled out and tried desperately to get past the surf. Wave after wave crashed on my head. I drank liters of salt water. Numerous times I lost the board. I cried.

Finally I made it out. I climbed onto my board and waited for a wave beside my dad. The water out here was undulating but calmer. I could breathe, relax.

My wave came and I caught it. I struggled to get to my knees and then to stand. I never made it upright. I crashed into the water. My board flew out from under me, flipped over my head, and knocked me in the temple. I remember being underwater not knowing which direction was up. The swirling water and foam all around me obscured the sunlight. I remember my shoulder hitting a rock on the floor and I remember trying to  swim up but being met with a wall of water pressure pushing me down. I remember, for two seconds, giving up, letting my limbs go limp, and then I remember fighting to the top, breaking through the water, and gasping, grasping for air. 

Later that day I sat on the sand crying and thought, “So that’s what it’s like to drown.”

Since that day, I’ve felt that sensation multiple times but always on land, pummeled by the waves of chaos, tsunamis triggered by the fall. 

Years ago Justin preached a sermon about Jesus in the boat with the apostles in the storm and he said to remember in our storms that Jesus is in the boat. And I liked that. 

Jesus is with us, and just his presence is powerful.

But it’s not enough. Jesus didn’t come to watch us struggle, sympathizing as we sink to the bottom of the sea. He came to save us.

My favorite part of the story is when Jesus calms the waves. During his sermon Justin said the Greek word Jesus might have spoken. He said, “Seopa.”

And I don’t know why exactly—maybe it was the way Justin said it, so sure, and maybe it was the way the word filled my mouth when I repeated it—but, for whatever reason, it crawled inside me, and I will never, ever forget it. Ten years later, when the sea begins to stir, I reach into my pocket and hold onto that word. Sometimes I say it out loud. Once I yelled it. 

I say it to my children when they’re out of control. 

I say it to my heart.

In Revelation the apostle John, the same John who sat in the sea-rocked boat and saw Jesus quiet the chaos, writes this:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

No tears. No death. No sea. 

Justin read a draft of this post and reminded me that the sea John’s talking about isn’t exactly literal. He said, “I think the ‘sea’ in Revelation signifies a separation between God and mankind—between ‘there’ and ‘here.’ It’s removal is the collision of heaven and earth, of God’s home and ours.” 

We agreed that in the collision confusion and chaos become casualties.

When I’m under water, when I can’t catch my breath, when the waves crash against me again and again, leaving me lifeless like a discarded punching bag, all I want is Seopa.

And I know I’ll have it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But I will have it, because my Immanuel is a Seopa-speaking, sea-stilling Savior.