When I was living in Florida, I would often travel across the intercostal waterway on my daily work route. There were often folks fishing along the bridges. They would sometimes stand there for hours, patient and determined in the Florida sun. Sometimes I’d see the same people in the same places at the same time both in the early morning and the early evening. I admired their determination and their patience and their stamina. And I frequently wondered if they caught anything.
Some of these fisher-folk had very little with regards to equipment. Most had simply a bucket, some bait and tackle, and a fishing rod of some sort, and perhaps a net. The more sophisticated might have had better equipment and perhaps a chair on which to sit. These fisher-folk traveled light, but all of them carried a deep desire to fish. And even the poorest of these fishermen had the greatest of faith. I was once a chaplain to a young black man with AIDS who explained to me the great benefits of fishing with a bamboo pole—one that he had made himself. Because he lived in the cramped quarters of a nursing home, and because he had had his fishing equipment stolen on more than one occasion, this young man hid his bamboo fishing pole in the wooded area that surrounded the nursing home. On his good days, days when his symptoms were under control, he would get a pass from the nursing facility, find his fishing pole, walk a mile or so to the intercoastal, and fish. I don’t know if he caught anything for his efforts, but I know that his fishing made his life bearable and gave him more hope than any of the medication that we gave him and he took on a daily basis.
It is difficult for me to read the biblical stories of the disciples without calling to mind the fisher-folk that I have known. The first disciples were fishermen when fishing wasn’t simply a hobby or sport, but a way of life and a family business. Fishing in first century Galilee was a cooperative venture, rather than a lone affair. Simon Peter, we are told, owned his fishing boat, a sign of his success in the fishing enterprise, and he was fishing partners with the sons of Zebedee, James and John.
As a captain and owner of his boat, Simon Peter loans his boat to Jesus so that Jesus can speak to the crowds that have gathered on the shore. Later, Jesus gives Peter a little advice. Simon Peter and his partners have fished all night and they haven’t caught a single thing. The time has come to wash and put away their nets for the day, to go home and count the day a loss. But Jesus says, no, “Put out your nets into the deeper water, and let down your nets for a catch.”
Who among us wouldn’t have been just a little frustrated with Jesus? He’s a carpenter’s son, not a fisherman, or so the disciples might have thought. Despite his favor with the crowds, just who is he to offer advice or suggestions? Didn’t he realize that they had worked all night? So what if they hadn’t caught anything? Some days are like that. There are good days and bad days. As Richard Swanson writes, “while it is distressing to work all night and catch nothing, it has happened before. In fact, that is one way you can tell the difference between a rookie and a seasoned veteran: rookies get all bent out of shape by the ordinary failures and get far too excited by sporadic successes. Veterans, on the other hand, accept both with recreational complaining and practiced calm. No success is so great that a veteran can’t complain about it, and no failure is so complete that a veteran can’t find a way to pick up and go on with ordinary life.” I imagine Simon’s partners grumbling, “It’s late, we’re hungry, and it’s time to go home—fish or no fish.” Or, “This Jesus fellow is meddling and making our daily work routine take longer.” Or, “ My wife is waiting for me at home; besides that I’ve got things to do. Go back to preaching, Jesus, and leave the fishing to us.”
“Put out into the deep water,” says Jesus and Simon initially balks at the suggestion. “Master,” he says, we have worked all night; we’ve tried these waters…it’s just the way things are.”
How many times have we fished in the same waters, tried the same things, said “we’ve done that before” and made up our minds and our hearts in the face of a suggestion or new idea. How many times do we shut down communication with our friends or loved ones when we say things like, “You’ll never change,” “you’re just like your brother, mother, sister, cousin…” and “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” How many times do we dismiss other people’s experiences because we make assumptions that we haven’t examined, assumptions that we are often fearful of examining?
The amazing thing about this story for today is that Peter obeys Jesus. “Yet, if you say so, Jesus, I will let down the nets.” Okay, I will try it your way, says Peter, and that is a far cry from “have it your way,” as the Burger King ads used to say. The amazing thing about this story is not the miraculous catch that follows or the fact that Simon Peter, and James and John leave the family fishing business to join with Jesus on the road. No, the amazing thing is that Simon Peter follows Jesus, with all of his doubt, reluctance, prior knowledge, experience, and “bad-day” baggage. Not only that, but Simon Peter—once he sees the difference that Jesus has made—confesses his sin and admits his wrong. To which, Jesus gently replies, “Do not be afraid.”
Simon Peter, James, and John were called to leave the shallow waters of their experience to go deeper in their faith and in the waters that they thought they knew so very well. This story, at its core, is about trust: the trust that it takes to see things from a different perspective and sometimes many perspectives at the same time. The trust that is required if we are to leave the shore and find the deep places of need, purpose, meaning, and transparency to which God calls each and every one of us located around the little boats in which we sail daily. The trust that is needed between members of this congregation if we are to engage in dialogue about the sensitive issues that weigh on our hearts and souls. Trust that is needed to know that we do not practice discernment without God being present in that struggle. Trust to believe that we are all in this boat call church together—that we are called to be partner’s in Christ’s service, as the song says, and to trust that Jesus will lead us. “Put out into the deeper waters,” Jesus says, and we are challenged by his words to leave our comfort zones and familiarity behind.
Now, this isn’t easy. Nor does it happen all at once. Fisher-folk are patient folk, patient with the fish and patient with themselves. And sometimes our trolling of the deeper waters in our lives brings tears of loss when we risk moving away from the comfortable routines and behaviors that we are so accustomed to. Once, when I was a little girl, my father took me fishing on a stream that ran through a friend’s family farm. We were fishing for trout that day—trout that were known to come down from the mountain on that side of town. Now, I was excited to be fishing and planted myself under the shade of a great tree along the stream bank. I remember sitting there for some time until I felt an unfamiliar tug on my line. Given my lack of fishing expertise, I probably should have hollered for my father to come and help me, but instead, thinking that I could handle any lil’ol’ trout that came my way, I gripped the rod, jerked on the string and yanked the poor thing out of the water and right smack dab into the tree branches that were above me. Needless to say, the trout, my hook and bait, and a good part of my fishing line ended up dangling from the tree. Needless to say, the trout got away. Had I looked above, I might have positioned myself differently. Had I called out for help, I might have received it. A little perspective would have gone a long way.
Friends, what are the deep waters in which you will find life and new growth? In the next year, we will have the opportunity to examine those waters and how we might explore the depths– as well as this boat we call church—in substance, mission and ministry. I pray that we, both individually and collectively, will call upon God in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide our hearts, minds, and hands. I pray that we will not fear venturing into the deeper waters of our faith—the place where it seems we are far from shore and where we can authentically examine both struggle and challenges. And I hope that we will have the humility to admit to God both strengths and weaknesses, the tenacity of our common faith, and the courage to trust God in Jesus, so that we may discern where we are being called as individuals and as a community. May your sails and souls be fixed on Jesus, that you may have perspective and true partnership with him– and with each other. Amen.
 Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006) 101.