One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
My first time in the ocean was at the beach at Panama City, Florida. I remember tasting salt water for the first time, and my amazement at being a bit more buoyant than in the lake water to which I was accustomed. I grew up in Thunder Bay, on the shore of Lake Superior, and spent a lot of time in those cool waters, and in other northern lakes. Those childhood experiences did not prepare me for waves powerful enough that we could body surf. Even in the relative calm of the Gulf of Mexico, the waves could carry us quite far. It was all new for me, being picked up and carried by this fluid force. These days you can experience this in a wave pool at almost any indoor water park, but back in my early twenties, the real waves, in the real ocean, felt miraculous. My body was lifted up and carried by the water, and my soul was at the same time expanded, and safely held, in a primal force, larger, more powerful than I, and definitely not in my control. This was a bodily, visceral experience of life and energy beyond my previous small knowing.
I had just a little, dog-paddling dip into the big sea of all life, perhaps a splash of what real surfers know about- especially the ones who approach riding the waves as a form of meditation, or prayer, of oneness with the universe.
Memories of swimming, and floating, and being moved by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico flooded back when the news began telling us the horrible story, and showing us the ugly pictures of the BP oil spill that began in April of 2010. More than 200,000 gallons of crude oil poured into those waters. By recent reports, even after 3 years of containment, dispersal, use of oil eating microbes and controlled burns, half the oil is still in the water. Some of the methods used have had their own deadly side effects.
The damage to the sea-bed, to the water quality, to the creatures that live in or on or near the water, including humans, to the beaches, and the fisheries, has not been accurately measured or documented. It may never be, because of the legal questions of liability and compensation. Even if there was a true financial accounting- no amount of money can undo what has been done. I don’t say this just to point fingers at big oil companies, because I know I have a role in this, every time I start my car, or fill my tank. We take part in, and enjoy the comforts of an economy that is wreaking havoc on the natural world. Can we confess complicity in these sins against creation?
A more recent memory is of the ocean experience my family enjoyed last summer, at Cavendish Beach on PEI. Does the Gulf of Saint Lawrence count as ocean? The water was definitely salty. I did not venture far enough out to discover if I could body surf. We found the water cold, even though the sun was warm. The red beach sand was the wonder of that day, and the kids and I sculpted a big turtle, including flat sandstone rocks for flippers. Something about the wind, the lapping waves, and the big blue sky encouraged the making of things. Creation seems an active reality in places even only slightly removed from the civility of human-tamed streets. It is good for us to get away from things people have constructed, and anchored to the earth, and go to places where we can see, and hear, and touch, and deeply appreciate what God makes.
In the shelter of our homes, or here in the sanctuary, it is possible to think of creation as a one-time act. Some philosophers imagine God as cosmic clock-maker, who designed and fashioned the big machine, got it all working, but who has now stepped away, to passively observe as it all winds down. I doubt any of these thinkers came to this conclusion while sitting on a beach.
On the beach, between the glories of sunrise and sunset, the constant motion of waves and wind are a wordless song of praise. They witness to the truth that creation, rather than a singular, long ago act of a distant God, is an ongoing, meticulous preoccupation of a hands-on Creator, in passionate love with their works in progress.
My most profound ocean experience was off the shore of Belize, formerly called British Honduras. I was traveling with a student group from a Quaker seminary. We went there to help with, and learn about mission work amongst very poor people in that small Caribbean nation’s capital.
Sadie, our wise and loving host, had been at the mission for many years. She’d had many groups of visitors in her time, and knew that all work and no play was hard on tender middle class North American souls. She arranged an excursion for us at a resort run by friends of the mission. Part of the adventure was cruising over a coral reef aboard a small glass bottom boat. Below us there appeared a fantastic marine world, home to the grown up cousins of sea creatures many of us have seen in aquariums, and these days, in those tropical fish screensavers.
I had never seen anything like it in my life. The glass bottom boat was literally a window into a different world below the surface of the water. Julian, our boat captain surprised us with the opportunity, if we were up for it, to step off the boat and take a dip in the warm water near the coral reef. There was even a kind of a gate cut into the hull. Using a snorkel, I was able to swim closer to the reef, and the mask became my own personal window. That was even more marvelous than looking through the boat’s glass bottom.
Like my soul-expanding experience of being buoyed up by warm salt water in the Gulf of Mexico, seeing the eco-system of the coral reef was a revelation- literally. An aspect of God’s creation whose beauty and complexity I could not have begun to imagine, was revealed. Seeing the way the light touched the reef, and lit up the fish, brightening all those colours and shapes, and all the activity under the water, I learned something about God. I learned about God the way that we learn about an artist when we study a painting and maybe say to ourselves- this is from a person’s heart.
The Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue wrote that “Beauty is the illumination of your soul.” (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom). A few years ago in a radio interview he also said that beauty ennobles the heart and reminds us of the infinity that is within us.
The oceans and their beautiful, mysterious depths can leave us in awe. They can also point us toward, and be a sign of the mystery and immensity of God. Even a glimpse of God at work can make a claim on us. We are changed by the experience, and if we open ourselves to the call of God, our lives may never be the same.
That happened to some of Jesus’ friends on the sea of Galilee. They said yes to his strange request that they put out into deep water, and let down their nets for a catch, even though they had already fished all night, and caught nothing.
They did not know what they were in for, or what would be in their nets. The sea gave up a tremendous catch. It was a moment of surprise, of unexpected and mysterious bounty. For these fishermen, the world was suddenly bigger, and more wondrous than they had known. Amen