Wandering Heart: Going into the Deep Water

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

This Lent we will be doing a series called “Wandering Hearts,” taken from the lyrics of the traditional gospel song, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”  In this series, we will explore discipleship with Simon, whom Jesus later renamed Peter.

Sales people know the feeling.  The feeling that comes from making call after call on one potential customer after another – and yet, having nothing to show for it.

Stay-at-home parents with young children know the feeling.  Diapers to change, meals to plan and prepare, laundry to do.  It can seem like the routine is never ending and never changing – and yet, what is there to show for it all?

Teachers know the feeling.  You are an experienced teacher; you had a good lesson plan that worked in the past, but you end the day feeling like no one understands the math.  And then there was the faculty meeting with lots of words but with nothing accomplished that would deal with the problems that the school is facing.

Some days are like that – when you know you’ve done everything you could to the best of your ability, but there is nothing to show for those efforts at the end of the day.  Some days are like that – and so are some nights.  Peter has just spent a futile night of fishing with his partners, James and John and others.  All of that work, all of that rowing, all of that casting, all of that hauling – and not a single fish to take to market.  Peter and his fishing partners know the feeling: that bone-deep weariness and rising frustration that comes from hard work and having nothing to show for it.

This is how Peter is feeling when Jesus tells him to go back out into the deep water, and try one more time.  Jesus is no stranger to Peter or the others because he is becoming well-known in the region around the Sea of Galilee.  He has not only made his inaugural speech in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth; he has also been healing many people and preaching to growing crowds.  Now, he has asked Peter to let him use Peter’s boat so that he can better address the crowds assembling on the shore.  When Jesus finishes, he turns to Peter and says, “Go into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 

I remember the sign on one of my auto mechanic’s shop walls: Labor costs: $20 an hour.  $30 if you watch.  $50 if you help.  “Peter must have wished for the fisherman’s equivalent.  What’s a carpenter’s son doing telling a fisherman how to run his business?”[1]  But whether it is because Peter has started to believe in this Jesus, or whether it is because he wants to test Jesus and see what he can do, or maybe because his mother taught him to be respectful to rabbis, Peter does what Jesus tells him to do.

The results are astounding.  From catching nothing all night long, suddenly the nets are so full of fish that Peter has to worry about his nets breaking.  There are so many fish that Peter has to signal for his partners to bring their boats over to help.  There are so many fish that Peter, James, and John worry that their boats might sink with all of the weight.  Suddenly a night to forget has become a morning to remember.

Peter, awed by what he has just witnessed Jesus do, no longer feels like he is worthy enough even to be in Jesus’ presence.  Driven to his knees, he blurts out to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 

Jesus does not dispute Peter.  But neither does he turn him away.  Instead, he summons Peter to follow him.  And Peter does – without hesitation.  So do James and John.  They are on the brink of their greatest single payday ever.  Yet, they leave it all behind because they believe that they have just received a better offer.

Twenty centuries, and a half of a globe, separate us from Peter, James and John; in many ways, our lives could not be more different.  And yet, we do share this in common with Peter and his partners in the fishing business: like them we too are being summoned to be Jesus Christ’s disciples in our place and time.  So what can we learn about discipleship and the Christian life from these 11 verses in Luke 5?

First, did you notice what Jesus’ first instruction was to Peter?  “Go into the deep water.”  Jesus’ instructions are not just a guide for where to find the fish on that day and in that place.  Those instructions are also a guide for disciples in all times and places.

“Go into the deep water.”  As Paula Gooder, an Anglican priest and spiritual writer observes, “It is a natural part of human nature to attempt to avoid places of danger and risk.  This is especially true in today’s risk-averse world which encourages us to be ‘safe,’ to take no risks…The problem with this is that a ‘safe’ life is a small one.”[2]

To be sure, there are times when we need a place of comfort and refuge.  There are “times of desolation and sorrow, times of depression or stress, times when we are physically ill or simply below par,” and need a safe harbor, Gooder goes on to say.  But a safe harbor is not where we are meant to stay forever.  After all, “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”[3]  As disciples, we are meant to leave the safe and shallow waters of our comfortable routines and follow Jesus into deeper waters.

Here are some questions to ponder this Lent: “am I living with an open heart and mind, willing to reach, to risk, to where I haven’t been, to where I may have been avoiding because I cannot stand there on my own?  If Jesus asks me to, am I willing to leave the shore behind and trust Christ for my safety and security?”[4]

Perhaps the deeper waters we are being called to require us to leave home physically – to go to Montreat with the youth this summer, or on a mission trip with Helping Hands, or Serving at the Crossroads, or somewhere else in the future.  Perhaps the deeps to which we are being called is to make a new commitment to a friendship, a marriage, a mentorship.  Perhaps we are being called to a new form of ministry and service, a deeper level of sacrifice, a deeper life of prayer.

Just as he did with Peter, James, and John, Jesus still seeks us out, still invites us to follow.  Will we follow him into the deeper waters, or will we cling to the safe comfort of the shallow waters where we can stand on our own?

Jesus’ second statement to Peter is just as important – and perhaps even more surprising.  When Peter falls on his knees after hauling in all of the fish and proclaims that he is a sinner not worthy of being in the presence of Jesus, Jesus does not refute Peter.  Neither does he offer words of absolution.  Instead, he says “do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” In part, Jesus wants Peter to know that his sin does not disqualify him – because Jesus only calls sinners like Peter, James, and John, and like you and me, to be his disciples.  We do not get to be disciples because we are qualified; we are made qualified by God’s mercy and power.  None of us is too young or too old; too weak or too strong; too educated or too uneducated; too rich or too poor.  Discipleship is for all Christians whether we have been following Christ for 5 minutes or 50 years.

Christ summons us the way we are; but that doesn’t mean that Christ wants us to stay the way we are.  To be a disciple is to be a student, a learner.  God wants to transform us and Jesus is our guide and teacher.  The goal is not more facts or knowledge.  God’s goal for us is to grow in understanding and insight, vision and character, so that we can be more Christ-like.  Disciples are to be followers and learners so a question we might ask ourselves is, what am I learning now from Jesus?  What did I learn last week?”[5]

“Do not be afraid.”  Jesus’ words to Peter are also reminders to disciples then and now that we are never called to be explorers sailing off on our own.  When we go into those deeper waters, we have others in the boat with us, a band of disciples, a community of faith.  And when we venture out of the shallow waters, we go with the One who is always ahead of us, always beside us, always behind us.

Finally, there is this when we look more closely at Luke 5; there is what happens when Peter, James, and John go into the deep waters and follow Jesus’ instructions.  There are all those fish – so many fish that the nets might be torn asunder, so many fish that the boats might sink.

There are some who try to reduce this story to a miracle story.  A demonstration of Jesus’ power to do the inexplicable, to do that which no one else can do.  To be sure, what happens here is a great and glorious example of Jesus’ divine power.  But there is more to this story than that.

And there are some who use this story to describe the prosperity that comes to those who are obedient to God.  And to be sure, those fishermen catch a lot of fish, the staple of their business, and they have the potential to make more money when they sell their fish on the shore than they ever have before.  But there is more going on than that.  Because these fishermen leave behind those nets and fish and the profits they represent.

No, this is a story of discipleship and blessing.  A night of fatigue and emptiness is turned into a day of new life, overflowing life.  This is a story of abundance.  What Jesus offers his disciples is not an easy life, nor does he simply offer us a reservation for heaven that we can only enjoy once we die. 

No, he summons us to a life abundant in meaning now – we discover that life has the meaning that deep down we long for, and that our lives matter.

Jesus summons us to a life abundant in purpose now.  Jobs and occupations come and go, but it is God’s calling, it is in ministry and serving God and others, through which we find true satisfaction.

And Jesus summons us to a life abundant in joy now.  That is not to say that our nets will always be full.  As we will see following Peter’s journey this Lent, as we will see in our lives, there will be losses, struggles, and failures.  But there will be more than enough love and grace to fill those empty nets and so that our lives can overflow with the joy of a full life.

Meaning, purpose, and joy – these are the gifts we receive in abundance when we go into the deep waters, when we follow Jesus’ summons to leave the shallow waters behind and follow him.

I close with a prayer attributed to the British explorer Sir Francis Drake – who know all about deep seas and discipleship.  May it be our prayer this Lent.

Disturb us, O Lord, when we are too well-pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the water of life, when, having fallen in love with time, we have ceased to dream of eternity, and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas where storms show Thy mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes and invited the brave to follow.  Amen.       

[1] Anna Carter Florence, A is for Alabaster: 52 Reflections on the Stories of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2023), 116-17.

[2] Paula Gooder, Let Me Go There: The Spirit of Lent (London: Canterbury Press, 2017), 2.

[3] Gooder, 3 (quoting John A. Shedd).

[4] From a sermon preached by Rev. Kerry Pidcock-Lester at First Presbyterian Church, Pottstown PA

[5] Gooder, 12.