“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4)
My tale begins during my time at the US Naval Academy. There are two kinds of people who come to plebe summer – them’s that can swim and them’s that can’t. I was one of the former. I had swum competitively since I was 12 years old, surfed since about the same age, and so swimming and water was as natural to me as breathing. One of my service projects was as a volunteer swim instructor for other midshipmen who needed to learn to swim – not only a good thing for a naval office – but also a requirement for graduation.
In the spring of junior year, I was assigned two midshipmen to instruct them in the fine art of swimming. The end goal was not the Olympics, but the graduation requirement of being able to swim continuously for 40 minutes. Jack was from Chicago’s south side and had never been in a pool, much less Lake Michigan nor the ocean. Joe was from the great plains of our Midwest – and he had at least seen the ocean once. Both needed to learn how to swim. They were assigned to the group known as the “sub squad” which given their propensity to sink and sink quite suddenly, was a group aptly named. During my time as sub-squad mentor, it seems to me that there were four stages of progression:
- Stage 1 – the on-shore chat where our erstwhile swimmers could hear the word of technique, of confidence, and to fear-not as I would be steadfastly by their side. Then moved by inspiring and spirit lifting words we moved (hopefully) to…
- Stage 2 – clinging to the side of the pool where there was some measure of safety, where one could get one’s feet wet – so to speak. Maybe put a face in the water, practice blowing bubbles, kicking, and all sort of preliminary things. Eventually came…
- Stage 3 – Those tentative movement of arms and limbs resembling the near occasion of swimming, the gasping for air, stopping to put one’s feet on the sure ground of the shallow end, and then repeating it all again – encouraged by their empathetic and compassionate instruction.
- Stage 4 – in the deep end, at last swimming free
Some never left Stage 1 and soon enough they concluded that a naval career was not for them, forever staying on the shore. Jack from Chicago was one of those folks. Some never graduated from Stage 2. There was never enough trust to let go and believe in the word. Most people made it to stage three – the near occasion of swimming – and were destined to complete the training marked by a 40-minute swim in uniform. But none more interesting than Joe.
Joe was a freshman and freshman year at the Naval Academy was intense to say the least. His squad leader was threatening him with unnamed and unspoken dire consequences if did not acquire the needed swimming skills. It was desperate times – and Joe seemed to forever linger in the shallow end. Empathy and compassion were proving none-too-effective. It was time for questioning his fortitude and courage. Yes… time for nautical trash talk.
In Naval Academy slang, a puddle pirate is a dismissive term for wanna-be sailors who spend their days on closed waters within sight of land, and their nights in bars telling sea stories of their exploits on Lake Right-Outside-of-Town. The shallow end of the Naval Academy swimming pool was pure puddle pirate territory. Destiny, courage, fortitude – all these things lay in the deep end where one was transformed from mere mortal to Blue Water Sailor. Those mythic iron men in wooden ships who plowed the uncharted water far and wide. Who ventured out where the navigation charts stopped and were simply marked “beyond here be sea dragons, denizens of the deep, and all kinds of creatures fearsome and deadly.” Joe, invited into the deep waters, was transformed. He eventually became a Midshipman Captain of one of the racing yawls and gained some notoriety as an open water racer. From puddle pirate to Blue Water Captain. Perhaps in this tale you’ve already heard our gospel’s echo: “Put out into the deep.”
There are two kinds of people in today’s Gospel – the crowd, who at the beginning of the Gospel press in upon Jesus, eager to hear the Word – but they never leave the shore. They never leave the known for the unknown. They never trust. The moment passes. And then there is Peter, Andrew, James and John – who heard the challenge to “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” No passive hearers of the Word, they put out into the deep – and lives changed.
Each one of us has our own moment when the Call comes. When we are called to put out into the deep. Growing up in Florida lead me to the water and the ocean. The Naval Academy lead to the submarine service, into the uncharted blue waters of the world’s oceans. But it was always known territory. It was safe. In my own way I had never become more than a puddle pirate and one on auto-pilot at that. But the call comes – it is different for everyone, but as we have heard in the last two weeks of readings, we have all been gifted by God. And God comes a calling, calling us to “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
For me it was into the blue waters called mission and the slums of Kenya where water was scarce and anything but blue. And all my tentative movements of what I thought was faith and Christian life, were cast away as so much flotsam and jetsam. I had to unlearn what I knew and trust in God – trust in a people whose language I did not yet speak. I was in over my head. But time and the tides have their own way of sweeping one into the rhythms of God. My life changed. Now I see what plan God had for my gifts – but I never would have seen them from the shore or the shallows. Only in the deep water does it become clear.
I can’t tell your story. But I can shed the light of the Gospel upon it. And let you hear what so many before you have heard “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Be seized by grace and dive into the unknown. Like the Isaiah in the first reading, like Paul the second, and like the Apostles in the Gospel – do not be afraid, leave the known and follow Jesus. Puddle Pirate or Blue Water Sailor. The hearer of the Word who never leaves shore or the one who casts off for the deep at the command of Jesus. Your call will come. When it does put out into deep water, venture beyond the charts, and be transformed.