As some of you know, our afternoon women’s Bible study this year has been working through a lesson book entitled “Come to the Waters.” The title of the study comes from Isaiah 55, which begins: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” – a passage that goes on to talk about the faithful provision and everlasting promises of God. Over the course of the year, our study has taken us through a wide range of biblical water imagery and its symbolism, in both the Old Testament and the New. We’ve discussed the waters of creation, the water of baptism, waters of justice and righteousness, and streams of mercy. We’ve talked about dangerous and stormy waters, and even the absence of water – how thirst and longing, both physical and metaphorical, can affect our life of faith.
Because I’ve had this theme on my mind, I also began noticing this year how many important stories from Jesus’ life and ministry also happen in and around water. So I thought we’d play around with this “Come to the Waters” theme for our spring sermon series, in a different way than we’ve been doing in the Bible study. Over the next several Sundays we’ll be looking specifically at a series of water stories in the gospels.
We’ll be incorporating as many water themed songs as we can too, in our worship services. Not that our Music Director, John, and I haven’t had some challenges along those lines. There are only so many to choose from! But we’re having fun working them in where we can, as we did with angel songs this past December. Today, for instance, you’ll notice that the old church camp song we’ll be singing immediately following our sermon includes in its refrain the words “come to the water.”
Meanwhile our gospel text for today puts us right out on the water with Peter and the other disciples, following Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples are gathered in Galilee by this point, when Peter suggests a fishing trip. Now Peter and a number of the other disciples were fishermen by trade. So this isn’t the same as hanging a “gone fishin’” sign on the door of their business as a break from work. This is more like getting back to work. And if fishing had been their life’s work, as likely as not a family business they’d carried on from their own fathers, it would also be well within their comfort zone.
After all, those “post-resurrection appearances of Jesus must have been bewildering. Now you saw him – now you didn’t! On the way to Emmaus they saw him, but they didn’t – until he revealed himself in the ‘breaking of the bread.’ The disciples behind locked doors on two different occasions were busily occupied with their own conversation when suddenly he was there among them – until he was no longer with them – and the door had never opened or closed! He keeps coming unexpectedly and leaving equally unexpectedly – in unexpected places and times! How were they ever to know where he was – where he was going to be – when they would see him and where they might meet him?”
So the rest of what’s been happening in the disciples’ lives recently would have been pretty disorienting. But at least they know what they’re doing when they’re out in a boat with a fishing net. So off they go.
And if they’re headed back to work, they’re also headed back to the beginning of their respective stories with Jesus. Matthew’s gospel tells us it was while Peter and his brother Andrew were casting their nets into the sea that Jesus called them to follow him in the first place: “’Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19-20) James and John seem to have been a little further along the beach, mending their fishing nets, and Jesus called them, and they followed him too. In other words, a number of the disciples had been fishing when they met Jesus; no wonder, really, that they went back to fishing again. Back to the beginning.
Of course this turns out to be not a terribly successful fishing trip, at least not at first. John 21 says they went out and got into the boat, but caught nothing all night long. That’s an awful lot of work, I’d imagine, with nothing to show for it.
But then comes this encounter with Jesus. “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.” He asks if they’ve caught anything, and they say no, and he tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat and they’ll find some fish. They do as this apparent stranger says, and lo and behold, the net is suddenly full to bursting – so full of fish they can’t even haul it in! One of them – it seems to be John - figures out it must be Jesus then, and Peter jumps right into the water and swims to shore to meet him. (Leaving the others, mind you, to drag the heavy net the remaining 100 yards. Gotta love good old impulsive Peter.)
And what was Jesus doing, when they made it to shore? He had a little campfire going, and he was cooking them all a nice hot breakfast of bread and fish.
It wasn’t that long since they’d all been through the ordeal of watching their beloved teacher arrested and killed. Wasn’t that long since they’d all fled in terror, and hidden themselves away for fear of the authorities. And even when he appeared to them after his resurrection, as we’ve said, it still had to pretty unnerving. Suddenly turning up in locked rooms, in a body that was somehow alive but still held the scars of his crucifixion? But here – what a comforting, normal moment, in a way. Welcoming them to share a meal together, just like old times. Right on the beach, right next to their fishing boat. Admittedly having helped them bring in a miraculous catch of fish! Their beloved friend and teacher was the Son of God, after all. But still. A gentle scene of friendship and reconnection. Not to mention a good meal after all their hard work. And just as he did at their Last Supper together, Jesus plays the roles of both servant and host at their breakfast on the beach.
Notice, too, that Jesus is sitting there cooking over a charcoal fire. It was only three chapters earlier, in John 18, when Peter was warming himself by another charcoal fire, that he denied three times even knowing Jesus. So I expect it wasn’t entirely coincidental that Jesus offered him a chance to redeem himself in that particular setting. We know how powerful smells can be in evoking memories. What must the smoky embers have called to mind for Peter? Did he flash back to that awful night in the courtyard and his humiliating moment of weakness?
But then just past our text for this morning, with that charcoal fire still burning on the beach, Jesus will allow Peter three opportunities to answer the question “Do you love me?” and each time Peter will answer “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Three times. And each time Peter responds, Jesus issues him a challenge, “then feed my sheep.” As if to help Peter move on from those three other questions he’d answered back at that other charcoal fire. Three chances to get it right this time. Three chances for a fresh start and a new beginning, complete with a new assignment.
I mentioned earlier that verse from Isaiah 55, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” There’s another verse from Isaiah that keeps coming to mind, too, as I read gospel stories like this one. Isaiah 58:11 promises that “The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places.” (Isaiah 58:11) Surely Jesus did this for Peter. Just imagine how desperate must have been his need for forgiveness, for acceptance by Jesus at this point in the story. Satisfying Peter’s need in those parched places with a good catch of fish, a comforting meal, and most importantly, with an opportunity to declare his allegiance once more, and then to demonstrate that allegiance with his life’s work.
Of course, no matter how interesting a gospel story may be in its own right, it’s never only about the people on the page, is it? Immediately before today’s text, back in John 20:31, we’re told “these things were written so that you [that is, we readers] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, the story gets to be our story too.
We may have missed out on that early morning cookout with Jesus; we may not have been out in that fishing boat or hauled in that net with the other disciples, but we are offered the same promises nonetheless. Jesus can see to it that we are, all of us, welcomed and fed, healed and forgiven, given fresh starts and new opportunities to serve in his name. We may even be surprised some day to find great abundance, nets full to bursting, where it seemed nothing at all would ever materialize for us. After all, our risen Lord is nothing if not full of surprises.
So “come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.” (Isaiah 55:1) The same Lord who served his friends breakfast on the beach that morning in Galilee stands ready to “satisfy your needs in parched places.” (Isaiah 58:11)
 Hubert Beck, “Sermon on John 21:1-19” in Textweek.com