Who Owns the Water?
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” I don’t know about you, but the idea of catching people sounds terrifying. In a fishing net, like exhuming a human body from its watery grave? Does Jesus mean catching people the way one catches a burglar, in the very act of harming someone else?
For a long time, Christians have thought that “catching people” means “saving souls” by inviting people to believe in Jesus. But this isn’t the first time Jesus’ listeners would have heard about catching people.
Consider the words of the ancient prophets. The prophet Jeremiah speaks to the people who have forsaken God and will be punished for it, saying “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them.” The prophet Amos speaks to those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,” saying, “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fish-hooks.” Ew.
And also the prophet Ezekiel, who gives this prophecy against the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, in a time when Pharaoh has apparently claimed too much power over the land—Ezekiel writes, “Thus says the Lord God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon sprawling in the midst of its channels, saying, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’ I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales. I will draw you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels sticking to your scales. I will fling you into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your channels; you shall fall in the open field, and not be gathered and buried. To the animals of the earth and the birds of the air, I have given you as food.”
So “fishing for people” is not like inviting them to a fun party so they’ll want to join a church, and it’s not like telling them about Jesus so they can possibly save their souls. Fishing for people means punishing those who have forsaken God. Fishing for people is like pulling out of society the people who are oppressing others. Fishing for people is likening Pharaoh, who has apparently claimed creation and ownership of the Nile and all the fish within it, to a dragon covered in fish who is thrown out into an open wilderness to be devoured by wild animals.
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says to the fishermen who have made their living by catching fish, “from now on you will be catching people.”
Uh, Jesus, that sounds GROSS. NO, THANK YOU. Why in the world would Peter and his co-workers ever say yes to this? One thing to remember about Peter: before this story happened, Peter has already met Jesus, and in fact Peter brought Jesus to his home to heal Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a fever. Peter has already witnessed a miraculous healing done by Jesus, but apparently that wasn’t enough for Peter to drop everything and follow Jesus.
Maybe Peter was skeptical. This story that makes me wonder if Peter was from Missouri, the “show me” state. I’m still a newcomer to Missouri, so I’m not entirely sure what’s the history behind the “show me” state designation, but just watching the weather, it makes sense to me—forecast a storm, snow, or just a rainshower, and I get it: I don’t believe it until I see it, either.
Whatever was going on with Peter though, Jesus keeps showing up and meeting Peter where he is: this time, at Peter’s workplace at the edge of the lake. I found a helpful article in Living Lutheran magazine this month, written by the Rev. Dr. Niveen Ibrahim Sarras, an ELCA pastor originally from Bethlehem in Palestine. We are so blessed as Lutherans to be surrounded by excellent scholars and faithful spiritual guides and support in the ministry of publishing—if you haven’t picked up Living Lutheran magazine, we have plenty of copies here at the church. I encourage you to check it out and read it prayerfully—God always has something interesting to point out to you.
In this issue’s Reflection column, Pastor Sarras helps us to understand the world of peasant fishermen in first-century Palestine, referencing the Bible scholarship of Ched Myers. The Roman Empire controlled the fishing industry, and Herod Antipas, the provincial Roman governor, wanted to expand the fishing industry for commercial export, not local consumption. There were taxes collected at every step along the way: fishermen had to get a lease from local brokers, and they had no option but to sell to Antipas’ factories, which exported fish to the Roman empire. Fishermen were not out enjoying a relaxing day on the lake: their hard work still left many of them destitute.
Do things like this still happen in our world? Sadly, yes. Consider people who work jobs where they are underpaid, where working full time hours still is not enough to cover their basic monthly needs for food and shelter. There are still people who work in the extraction of renewable natural resources who aren’t compensated enough to enjoy those very resources—think of people working the land to grow coffee beans or the cocoa beans that are used to make chocolate.
Or what about water—who owns that? It’s nothing new in human history to block off lakes or rivers from common use, but what about rainwater? I’m reminded of the stories from Colorado, where years of persistent drought conditions brought on laws aimed at restricting homeowners from rainwater harvesting. I think they’re currently limited to collecting two barrels of rain per year. That’s right: there are limitations on how much rain—water that falls freely from the sky—that a homeowner can gather for their home use.
Who owns the water? Who gets to use it? Who owns the fish that live in the waters? Who owns the land? Humans have created a complex system to answer these questions; we’ve been doing this for forever. But Jesus doesn’t avoid the complications—he wades right out into the mess humanity has made.
Jesus shows up and hangs out with the very people experiencing economic oppression. He didn’t tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just work harder. He didn’t shame them for not getting into a more lucrative business. He taught them…ah, well, we don’t actually know what he said while he was preaching from inside a fishing boat—that wasn’t the most interesting part of the story.
What he did was to tell these unsuccessful fishermen to go out on the lake one more time, to drop their nets into the water one more time. So think of Peter: exhausted from the night’s work, probably discouraged by the lack of fish to be sold, and maybe even anxious as he wondered how he would feed his family, reluctant to go out one more time. Somehow Peter summons the energy to tell Jesus, “Master…if you say so…”
And what he brings back is a net so full of fish that the boats are sinking. An abundance of fish, enough for witnesses to wonder: who really owns this lake? Who’s really in charge of this world? In this moment, Peter cannot deny Jesus’s power—he can only deny his own worthiness. But Jesus doesn’t even allow that.
“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And you don’t have to live this way, being exploited for your labor so that other people can get rich from your work. You don’t have to settle for a system that favors some people over others and unevenly distributes wealth. You don’t have to stay silent and hopeless—I see you, and I hear you, and your voice matters, and together we’re going to fish out the injustice and build the kin-dom, the family of God.
Would you say yes to that? Would you say yes to fishing out injustice, to rooting our corruption, to shining light on evil deeds that the powerful would prefer to keep in darkness? Would you say yes to speaking against systemic racism, yes to empowering people without much political power, yes to living simply so that others can simply live? Would you leave everything behind—whether a boat full of fish or a home or even a pile of cash—just for the privilege of following Jesus and joining him in this work?
This message is for you: do not be afraid. There’s plenty to fear, no doubt, but Jesus assures you: do not be afraid. God is in charge. The world as it is, where wickedness so often seems to thrive, is still the creation of a loving God. There is so much still to be redeemed, so much healing still to be accomplished, and the work is not yet done. The kin-dom of God needs you, needs all your compassion, all your integrity, all your creativity. And do not be afraid: Jesus is the one we still follow.
I want to read for you the first verse of our hymn of the day, in case you don’t catch the words:
How clear is our vocation, Lord,
when once we heed your call to live according to your word and daily
learn, refreshed, restored,
that you are Lord of all, and will not let us fall.
May God continue to empower us for this ongoing work, and may we be blessed to bear witness to the love of God transforming this world, we pray in Jesus Christ.
 Jeremiah 16:16  Amos 4:1-2  Ezekiel 29: 2-5  Niveen Ibrahim Sarras, “Will We Join Him?” Living Lutheran, January/February 2022, page 22.  Ibid.