And let all who toil, let them come to the water.
And let all who are weary, let them come to the Lord:
All who labor, without rest. How can your soul find rest, except for the Lord?
John Foley SJ, 1978
In late June the temperature rises toward 100 degrees, the ground hardens, but the tour busses come in force, ferrying modern-day pilgrims from one site to another along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Against the coming and going of groups, and the constant murmur of the guides affirming “uncontested tradition” establishing the historical veracity of every rock and shrine, it was a relief to take to the water.
The Sea of Galilee is a large freshwater lake 13 miles long and eight miles in width located in the Jordan rift valley, in northeastern Israel. Tourism remains centered in tall hotels at the busy lake-side city of Tiberias, but otherwise the land is largely unmarred by modern times. In Jesus time’ the area was dotted with small villages, and the Bible tells how crowds numbering in the thousands from districts on all sides of the Sea of Galilee came to hear Jesus preach and work wonders. Apart from a narrow strip of cultivation along the shore, the surrounding hills and rocky outcroppings rise up as barren as in the time of Christ.
Alice and I had come along with a small group of Americans to begin a week long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a land with a long history of spiritual journeys. The ancient Hebrews had celebrated the tombs of Old Testament Prophets and heroines, and over the centuries Christians followed suit. Of all the holy places, there is good reason why the Sea of Galilee remains many visitors’ destination of choice.
About the year 30 A.D., Jesus came to the lake from the obscure village of Nazareth twenty-five miles to the west, and made acquaintances with bronzed fishermen working these waters from the small fishing port of Capernaum, a town in which the dominant cultures of Jesus’ day were virtually atop one another. Passing through the town was the Via Maris, the Roman military highway and trade route connecting the city of Alexandria in Egypt with the Syrian capital of Damascus. Along this road passed caravans of camels bearing trade goods who refitted here, taking on supplies of dried fish. The world of shops and trade, with its babble of languages and customs, was foreign to Jesus whose book-learning was limited to reading the Torah in Hebrew, and was otherwise grounded in oral tradition passed down from father to son. In preaching the Good News, he spoke of that which he knew: of farmers, shepherds, olive trees, vineyards — and the Sea of Galilee.
In the major Christian shrines of Bethlehem and Jerusalem one stands in lines beset by souvenir sellers, vying to access crowded religious sites. But in Galilee one can still walk along the lake shore just as Jesus did when he first encountered Andrew and Peter off shore dropping their net into the lake. In the shallow lake water near the shore, clouds of tilapia can still be seen, and one is reminded of the two small fish supplied by a boy that were used by Jesus to feed the 5000 in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. And one can step onto a boat and set out into the deep where there is only the wind, the sun, and the water that Jesus experienced.
We took such a boat ride, gliding slowly over the gently lapping waves. From a distance, features along the shoreline become more apparent: There is the town of Magdala from which the woman came who scandalized onlookers by anointing Jesus head with valuable perfume. A natural amphitheater is visible such as that where the multitude sat while Jesus spoke to them from Peter’s boat anchored slightly off shore. Further back is a hill where the sermon of the Mount may have been given. Then there is the great notch of a valley leading to the uplands where Jesus walked on his fateful final journey to Jerusalem, 120 miles to the south.
Through the morning there was barely a ripple on the water, but in the afternoon the winds would pick up, as the warm air rose off the distant hills. In July, gusts of wind at times come swirling off the Syrian desert to the north and east, causing fishermen in Biblical times to unfasten their sails and allow their vessels to be blown before the storm. One recalls the incident of Jesus asleep in the bottom of the boat, while a storm raged and the apostles feared death; or of another storm when night fell, the wind rose, and Peter saw Jesus walking toward the boat on the water and sought to walk out to meet him.
Pope Francis wonderfully describes Jesus, as a man “whose whole life, his way of dealing with the poor, his actions, his integrity, his simple daily acts of generosity, and finally his complete self-giving, is precious and reveals the mystery of his divine life.” Ultimately any visit to the Holy Land is not so much a visit to a place, but a quest to better see the face of Christ. The prow of our vessels turns back toward the shore, rippling foam on either side, and the brief journey comes to an end. Later, reflecting on this calming experience, I am reminded that like Peter, each of us throughout our lives, must time and again step into the unknown to grasp the hand of the man who once walked these waters — and as the risen Christ, remains with us still.