The three of them sat silently with their faces to the lake’s cold breeze. The sun was approaching its full height, and shadows were scant. The sound of the sail in the wind played counterpoint to the waves lapping on the ship’s prow. Another boat lapped along not far away. It belonged to his friends, partners in the struggling business. They had also had a fruitless night. When Simon had told them they were going out one more time with the teacher, they shrugged in a Why not fashion and headed out beside them.
The teacher was gazing out into the water now, like a boy on a boat for the very first time, waving a grand Hello to the other boat. Simon couldn’t help but smile at the oddly innocent look of wonder on his face. This is the man who took a shot to the face and preached a sermon about it, he thought, and shook his head.
“You haven’t done much fishing before have you?”
Jesus turned his attention to Simon. “Only from the shore. My cousin and I used to use a hook and line when we were little. Never used nets before.”
Despite his best efforts, Simon couldn’t help beginning to like this man. And he still kept glancing at that welt under his eye.
“Would you like to try it?” asked Simon.
“Yes! I’d love to!”
“Well, rabbi, you just tell us where to throw them, then.”
The preacher peered over the side of the boat. “Here. I think this is deep enough.”
“Very good. We’ll drop them here then. Just watch me first, and then you can have a go yourself.”
Andrew and Simon stood to take down the sail and retrieved their nets, each automatically turning to “his” side of the boat. Simon tied one end of the rope to his right hand, and gathered it in loops in his left.
“Like so. See? And then, one fluid throw like this…”
Simon turned at the waist and threw the net out upon the sea in a surprisingly graceful motion. Andrew did the same, and the nets fell with an almost simultaneous splish. There was a momentary circular grid on the water as the nets descended slowly from the surface.
“Got it?” Simon asked, turning his head to the rabbi.
The rabbi was truly entranced by the fisherman’s skill. He chuckled. “We’ll see!”
Simon smiled again, and pulled in the empty net. “Are you right-handed or left?”
Simon raised his eyebrows to his brother. Andrew shrugged and smirked.
“Right for this, I think,” said the preacher.
Simon proceeded to tie the end of the rope around the rabbi’s left hand and helped him loop it in his right.
“All right. Now, one nice swing and release. Go ahead.”
The rabbi turned at the waist, swung out, and released… too soon. The net fell impossibly close to the boat in a half-moon shape, and he began to laugh. “Perhaps I’ll leave the fishing to you,” he said.
Simon noticed there was not a shred of embarrassment in his voice. He admired that. “And I’ll leave the preaching to you.”
Simon, as he regathered the rope and net, watched the preacher carefully. “I noticed that scratch under your eye,” he said.
“I know,” said the rabbi.
Andrew turned and looked from Simon to the rabbi. He had not, until now, been as observant. But there it was: a thin, red comma beneath the teacher’s right eye.
Simon cast the net again, and again watched the grid disappear into the calm waters. “What you said this morning about, how did you put it? ‘Turning the other cheek’? You really did that, didn’t you? I mean, that wasn’t just some kind of illustration, was it?”
“Only inasmuch as the illustration is real.”
The fisherman appreciated that there were no attempts to dismiss the accusation for the sake of false humility.
Jesus spoke quietly.
“Strength isn’t always what you think it is, Simon.”
Simon had no response. He held the net’s rope thoughtfully and silently. He knew they weren’t going to be catching any fish today, especially at this time of the day and in this spot, but he was glad to be out in the boat with this preacher.
Suddenly his hand was burning. The rope was disappearing into the lake. An astonished cuss filled his mouth as he quickly grabbed it with both hands.
“Andrew! Help me here!”
But the rabbi was there before Andrew could secure his own net and respond, and Jesus was pulling with all his strength alongside his new shipmate. Simon’s disbelieving eyes grew wide as the bulging net drew closer to the surface.
“My God!” Andrew stood staring at the two of them, his own rope held dumbly in his hands. He was nearly pulled overboard when his own rope ran away from him with an unexpected zhip. His eyes grew wide and his language limited with stupefaction. “Net… Fish!”
Simon and the teacher were still attempting to pull their own net aboard, but as it began to break the surface and take on more weight, Simon could tell the old nets wouldn’t hold. More hands were needed. He called across to his partners in the other boat, waving his free hand frantically.
“Hey! Hey! We need your help! You won’t believe this!”
Andrew also called out. “Fish!”
By the time the fraying (but somehow still holding) nets were drawn, the three men sat with flopping tilapia up to their knees. Their boat, and their partner’s boat, were resting dangerously low in the water, and water lapped over the edges onto the squirming fish.
Simon sat incredulously staring at the black-eyed rabbi. Never in his life, nor in the lives of anyone he knew for that matter, had he ever seen such a haul of fish. It had been a difficult season, and in one haul, they had caught more than they had all year. This wasn’t just a good catch. It was a life saver.
He knew this was no coincidence. He wasn’t a brilliant man, but he knew a miracle when he saw one, and he knew that this man, somehow, had been in charge of it. He realized he was staring, and turned his gaze from the preacher to the shore. It was approaching quickly now.
There were astonished gasps, and many things declared “Holy” when the fishermen on the shore saw the haul. Simon, who would ordinarily have been laughing and hooting with the rest of them as they began the work of sorting, worked silently. He set his eyes on the rabbi. The teacher was throwing himself into the work of sorting the hundreds of fish that had been caught, right alongside the rest of the men. He was sharing a laugh with Andrew. Simon, however, was grappling hard against the tears that fought their way to the corners of his eyes. His heart was held firmly in his throat, fighting as it was to escape his mouth in a bawl.
His thoughts seemed to be swirling in disconnected memories and feelings, but they were all connected, somehow. They were connected with the rabbi he had disregarded just a few hours ago. In fact, he seemed to be at the very center of them. The pain of losing Adah, even the joy of finding her in the first place, was strung like a net and a rope from that preacher, and Simon was caught in the center of it.
It was something about the ease with which he seemed to invite friendship that reminded him of these things, of her. There was something holy about it. That was it. That was the connection. Holiness. That was the net, and the preacher had cast it as gracefully as Simon tossed his own fraying net.
Here he saw Adah’s smile for what it was, and what it always had been: Pure. Undefiled. Holy. Every moment of tenderness glowed in his memory with this holiness. The water trickling from her nose when she’d burst out laughing, cup to her lips, at that first embarrassing meal with the family. Her hands as they worked at an everyday task. Her eyes when she said something as common as a casual good-bye. Sacred.
Then he remembered himself. He remembered every cruel word he’d spoken since her death. Every “shut the hell up” he’d said to his brother, a brother whose love for him had only been surpassed, and just barely, by Adah. He saw himself drunk at the tavern, fists blazing, each blow to a stranger’s face a testament to his own weakness. He saw himself for what he was: Defiled. Hateful. Broken. Sinful.
Yet here he was, counting fish, in the presence of Love itself, and a thought came to him as a swelling tide: This is the holiest man I ever met.
He stood, his hands visibly trembling, and approached the rabbi. His legs began to quaver and he fell to his knees, fish still flopping at his feet. Tears broke upon his cheeks, pouring down upon his beard like oil. Jesus knelt with him, and held him. Simon’s heart, at long last, escaped his throat, and it wept and wailed in the teacher’s arms.
“Please,” Simon sobbed, “Please leave me, Lord! I’m a sinful man! I’m a wretch. I’m nothing. I don’t know why you came here, I don’t know why you even said hello to me, but please, go!”
Jesus spoke quietly in his ear. “No.”
Another wave of tears came over the whimpering fisherman.
“I see it all, Simon. I see who you are. I see who you’ve chosen to be.”
Simon’s eyes cleared for a moment, and he found himself staring into the eyes of Jesus.
“I see you, Simon. You were meant for more than this. More than being in bar fights or even fishing for musht. There are deeper waters than these.”
Simon’s heart beat loudly in his ears. He felt it thrumming in his chest, until his grief seemed to give way to something else. He felt hope and fear swimming in circles within him. He was afraid, for the second time today, that he just might do anything this man asked of him.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus. “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”
Simon wasn’t sure what this meant, but he knew it was true. After all, he’d just been caught.
He left everything, and followed Jesus.