I’m not much of a fisherwoman. My grandfather taught me to fish on the Withlacoochee River when I was a little girl. He was a patient man that quite frankly did most of the “fishing work” for me. He drove his boat to the best fishing spots, he baited my line (every time), he told me when to wait it out and when to slowly reel it in, he took the fish off the hook (on the rare occasion I caught one) and then he would do the yucky part; the cleaning. He was born and raised in Mississippi so I won’t tell you just how he cleaned the catfish I caught, but you can use your imagination.
Jesus talks a lot about fishing. He hung out with fishermen, he performed miracles with fish, and he used fishing as a metaphor for evangelism and sharing our story. As I reflected again on my trip to the Holy Land 6 months ago, I thought a lot about fishing and the bodies of water that Jesus used in his storytelling. Six months ago, I had just gone across the Sea of Galilee with my friends and clergy colleagues. It was a holy day. It had started out rainy, as a lot of Tiberias mornings do, and it was cold. We were bundled up next to each other (something I miss in this COVID world) and we were singing and praying and worshipping God together. Our Bishop, Ken Carter stood up, just like Jesus might have, and began to teach. Bishop Carter reminded us about the miracles on the water when Peter tried to walk on the water towards Jesus. Then the story about how Jesus calmed the storm when the disciples feared for their life and how our anxiety can take our eyes off of the one who is in control of everything because we are afraid. But the re-told story that stood out most that day was the story of when Jesus called his disciples.
What I didn’t know in Sunday School or youth group or even in seminary, was the context of that story. I really didn’t get it until I was actually in the boat, on the Sea of Galilee, and going from one side of the lake to the other. You see, in Jesus day, this story (Luke 5:1-11) would have resonated with all people, not just fishermen. I’m convinced that Jesus was an introvert, because when “the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” Jesus found two boats and went out in a smaller group heading for the other side. In other words, he got the heck out of the crowded space to just be with a few friends. Those few that he chose to get in the boat would begin to understand the real cost of discipleship and what sacrifice is needed to faithfully fish. Now the other side wasn’t a friendly place to go. It was full of “those” kinds of people. The people that the righteous and law-abiding Jews did not talk to or interact with, and yet, that is where Jesus’ boat was heading. You see, the “other side” was Gentile land, in other words, full of people not like us; with differing theological expressions, socio-economic statuses, lifestyles or priorities. But regardless of the uncomfortable reality of what the “other side” has or doesn’t have, Jesus’ boat is going there anyways.
While on the journey from one end of the Sea of Galilee to the next, Jesus had the fisherman row the boat a little way from the shore. It was here that he began teaching and convicting his soon to be disciples about what it means to fish in deep water. In the case with my grandfather, the shallow marshes were the best places to catch yummy catfish. Water so shallow and clear, you could see to the bottom. But we aren’t fishing in shallow waters as followers of Jesus, because that is where the water is calm and easy. Jesus takes His disciples out into deep water, water that is unreliable and could become dangerous very quickly and it is here where so many fish are caught. So many, Scripture says, that the nets were filled so abundantly that the boat started to sink. And it was in this miracle, after a long hard night of trying to fish ‘the way it had always been done’, that the disciples realized that Jesus was the Lord and so they left everything and followed him.
As I listened to the retelling of this well-known story again on the Sea of Galilee, I began praying that God would lead me to more deep waters, for more uncomfortable situations and more opportunities to go to the “other side.” We can always fish where it is shallow, yes. We can fish for people where it is easy, amongst people that are like us so that nothing they do or say will challenge us or “rock our boats.” But that isn’t where Jesus’ boat is headed. Jesus’ boat goes to the other side, to the unfamiliar places where it is uncomfortable and where we are stretched. That day I realized, after already 9 years in the ministry, that ministry is really about going across to the other side to people that are strangers to us.
And on the way to the other side, we don’t know how God might use us. But we do know that we have been called to fish in deep water. And then once the fish are caught, God will do the rest. But somewhere in the history of Christendom we got it into our heads that the fish have to be cleaned BEFORE they can be caught, but that understanding is wrong. Instead, just like with my Grandpa, we don’t do the yucky work of cleaning the fish; that is the job of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone. God will do the hard work; we get to do the fishing, so long as we are open to fishing in deep water and remaining on Jesus’ boat. We might not all be great fisher-people, but we’ve got our Lord and Savior helping us figure it all out.