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Going into Deep Water

We all know how it feels to share really good news… think of the folks in 1928 the year sliced bread came on the market. “Harriet, have you tried the new sliced bread yet? It’s amazing! All the slices are the same size and they aren’t squished from cutting them, and they fit so nice in my toaster and for making sandwiches!”

In Luke 5:1-11, I imagine the fishermen were feeling that same way about Jesus after that little bout on the boat! “Did you hear what happened? Jesus went out on the boat with us after we hadn’t caught anything all night, and he sort of casually tells us to throw the net off the other side, and we hauled in this HUGE catch of fish! He’s the best thing since sliced bread… oh, wait, that hasn’t been invented, yet. He’s the best thing since… beer! We’re following him, he asked us to come help him catch people, whatever that means.”

So, let me be honest and tell you that I struggle with this scripture passage. The invitation to “fish for people” is layered with a negative history of forced conversions, intrusive evangelism techniques, converting the heathen, crusades, inquisitions and uncomfortable conversations with friends… “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

With that history in my head, the fishing image this passage evokes for me is of the fish becoming entangled in the net, hauled out of the water, being unable to breathe anymore, helplessly flapping around until they die. Is that really what we want to do to people? Entangle them with rules, doctrine, threats of ostracism or hell? Not really a pretty image, and perhaps skewed by my cynicism, but there you have it.

Now, I truly don’t think Jesus himself meant that he wanted to ensnare anyone, or entangle anyone. For me, the message and spirituality of Jesus has always been about freedom. Freedom to follow the spirit rather than the law. Freedom to find joy in serving, giving and loving. Freedom from oppression. Freedom to live authentically. Jesus’ nets were meant to enlighten, not to entangle.

For the entirety of my ministry, evangelism was the thing I failed at most. Perhaps because I never appreciated anyone trying to tell me what I had to believe, or perhaps because I’ve never believed in the traditional threat that one was going to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus. Whatever the case, it has always felt wrong to push Christianity on anyone. I never wanted anyone to feel trapped, nagged, coerced, threatened, caught, entangled in some web. But, to offer a path to enlightenment, now that's a different thing.

So, allow me to look at the metaphor of this fishing story from a new angle or two.

First, let’s re-experience the scripture for a few minutes. I’d like you to pretend you’re Simon (who will eventually be known as Peter). You’re a fisherman by trade. You’ve been out all night casting your net and hauling it in empty. You are tired, sore, frustrated, worried, and feel like a failure, after all your family and people in town were counting on your fish for dinner. Could it be that you’re also feeling spiritually empty, just like your nets, and wondering if this is all there is to life?

You’re ready to go home, but the nets have to be cleaned and mended, and now a crowd has formed and is listening to that guy Jesus, the teacher you’ve heard about. Ad you watch, he wades through the water toward you and climbs into your boat to get away from the crowd. Great. Just what you need. He asks you to pull out from shore a little bit. There is really no way to say “no.” So you row out a little ways and Jesus settles in and continues to teach the crowd.

Surprisingly, you’re getting a little caught up in his teaching, this isn’t like listening to the rabbis go on and on about scripture. This guy is speaking from his heart, in ordinary language that made sense, and in hopeful, loving, kind language that touches your heart. When Jesus is done he turns to you and asks you to head out a little deeper and put out your nets again. Your weariness returns, and you mention that you’ve been out all night and didn’t catch anything, but you see the look on his face, and you remember that his words moved you. This guy inspires trust, so you agree.

No sooner have you rowed out to deep water and tossed in the nets, when you see that the lake is teeming with fish and you’re hauling in the biggest catch of your life. Suddenly there is abundance where there was nothing, and energy when you had none. You look at Jesus and he’s smiling and maybe gives a little shrug - go figure.

In that instant, as you look into his eyes, you realize it’s not about the fish anymore. In fact, it never had anything do with the fish at all, and you’re scared to death. It’s like Jesus is speaking directly to your heart and saying, “I know you are empty inside, lost and searching, but I can help you to fill that emptiness, just like I helped fill your nets.  I can help you to live life abundantly.” 

But you’re a good Jew and you were raised with a healthy fear of the Divine. You’ve tried to do your best to follow all the rules, but you’ve fallen short plenty of times. Whatever is going on with Jesus right now, you’re convinced that you’re probably not worthy  –  spiritually or personally.  You’re afraid to even look at him, “Leave me, Rabbi, I’m just not good enough for all this.” But Jesus is unfazed, he simply says, “Don’t be afraid. I’ve helped you fish, now you can come cast your nets a different way and help me catch people.”

At this point, if Jesus is willing to have you, you’re going. You have seen something, experienced something, a depth to life and God that you didn’t even know existed. And, you’re not ready to give that up.

So... what if the key to this passage is going out into deep water?  Frankly, deep water freaks me out. Have you ever gone out on a boat, stopped in the middle of the lake or ocean and gone out swimming? Knowing the bottom is maybe 50 to 100 feet or more below me sort of scares me! But as a spiritual metaphor, going out into deeper water and casting our nets means we have nothing solid to stand on. It means trust and risk. It means confronting our own fears because it means casting our nets in the deeper water  of our souls. It means getting out of the shallows, the superficial in our lives to bring up and deal with the heart of things.

In Mark Nepo's short reflection, “Take Me Down,” he poetically suggests that when we enter the depths of the heart it’s transformative. It stops us in our tracks. It takes us past the distractions and superficiality of the world and helps us to see past the boundaries between you and me to where there are no boundaries, “And the flower of our pain braids with the music of our love until your story is my story. Until we feel the common ancestor we came from.”

We are all called to put out into deeper waters, to explore the depths of our souls where the Divine waits to transform us, to put us in touch with our authentic selves and with all creation. Where we will know that we have been seen and loved, where doubt will disappear and nothing will ever be the same again.

Love & Light!