21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
I was by the boat that day, the morning Jesus came along the beach.
It was a morning as ordinary as any after a night’s work of casting, hauling, the sweat and the salt and the seaweed sliming our hands and crusting our arms. It’s hard work, throw after throw of the nets, counting as they sink, dragging them back to the boat. We work when the sun isn’t there to wring us out, standing in our boats singing in the dark and hoping every heave, every haul, there will be enough to sell and maybe eat a little too.
And every morning, arms and back trembling, we sit beside the boats in the shrinking shade as the sun rises. Every morning we tend our nets: tying, mending, stretching, replacing, working new ropes in with the old, testing their stretch and pull. This is our time for storytelling as we wait word from the market: stories of nets that slipped our grasp, stories of boats that pulled too hard and tipped, stories (real or no) of nets too full to pull in, stories of sudden storms that took our friends. This, after all, is the real wealth of the fisherman, the stories we trade as vital as food, as sustaining as drink after a long night’s work, the stories of our own dreams and hopes and disappointments.
It was a morning as ordinary as any other, the stories as repeated as always. I remember it was an ordinary catch, not great; we had enough to sell, enough so my family could probably eat today. Zebedee is a good man and treats hired hands like me well – I know this boat, these nets, are a lucky thing for someone like me. I know what I have here. He’s fair, he shares with all of us, and we get by – at least on days like today.
The sun was climbing higher and we were all sitting closer as the shade shrank. John, who always finishes first, was leaning against the boat flicking fish scales in little glistening arcs when we saw the stranger on the beach. Zebedee saw him coming and nudged James, but we didn’t say anything. We see strangers here sometimes but not often, and he didn’t walk like a fisherman, he didn’t have the lift of the waves in his step the way we did, that permanent sway in the knees we who stand on the water do. He wasn’t one of us, just another Galilean walking the shore on his way somewhere, an ordinary stranger.
Our stories dwindled as he we watched him walk closer. Zebedee called out a greeting – he was the eldest, hospitality was his right. The man shaded his eyes and smiled, stepping right to where our boats were pulled up, right to our feet sticking out of the crescent of shade still left. He didn’t say anything for a bit, just looked at us. He just looked.
How can I say? He saw me. I don’t know how or what he did but he looked at me and he saw me – without saying a word, without raising a hand or a flicker on his face, I knew that he saw me, knew how hard it is to hold my temper sometimes, knew how my arms and back could work all night and do good work but were getting slower to recover every day. He saw how hard it is sometimes with the kids and not knowing what the catch will be, the days when we’re all hungry and I sneak food off my plate to give them even though I’ll need the strength that night. He saw the constant hurt of the one we lost, saw how desperately I need this job and how afraid I am that it will slip past me. He looked at me with his hand shading his eyes and not a word on his lips and he saw me.
And then he looked on. At Zebedee for a long moment and a silent nod, at James and John leaning against their father, he looked and I could feel them feel it, too. For a long moment I wasn’t sure what would happen but then he smiled. And he spoke. And he said, “Follow me.”
I was by the boat that day too, the day Jesus came walking along the beach. I felt him call – not heard, I felt it – and I watched, silent, still, as James and John looked at their father for a long moment, set down the nets, and stood. I felt it, I felt Jesus’ call down in the depths of my stomach, I felt it but he wasn’t calling me, not yet. It wasn’t my time yet. My family isn’t ready yet. They are counting on me and Jesus didn’t want me to let them down. As much as I felt that draw, Jesus wasn’t calling me – yet.
But I remember, oh I remember. It was an offer, a life there I’ve never felt before or since. I know where he ended, I drank up every story I could gather – the healings, the teaching, the arrest. I know about the soldiers and the whips and the cross. I sought every confused and confounding story that came after, I know it all.
And when word came back that James and John were teaching and telling stories, changed somehow from fish-smelling callous-hand sea workers like me into leaders and teachers, that’s when I knew. Jesus’ call wasn’t to a place, a time, for the two years he walked our land. He has designs on us all. Even for me. Even a fisherman like me.
I was there that day, the morning Jesus came along the beach. He called me, too. He called me too.