05/06/2013 06:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Christian Tourists Flock to the Sea of Galilee

Tourism is a big part of Israel's economy. And much of that is Christian tourism: mostly bus tours of Americans visiting sights from Jesus' three-year ministry--places they've imagined since their childhood Sunday school classes.

While Jesus was born in Bethlehem, to the south near Jerusalem, he grew up in the north in Nazareth, near the Sea of Galilee. Since the Jordan River dumps into the north end of the lake, that's where there's the most oxygen in the water and consequently the most fish. In that area, around Capernaum, is where the major population centers were and, of course, the most fishermen. This is where Jesus assembled his band of disciples, turning fishers of fish into fishers of men.

On the shore of Galilee, at Kibbutz Ginosar, there's an impressive little lakeside museum containing the recently excavated scant remains of "the Jesus Boat"--a typical fisherman's boat from the first century A.D.

The Sea of Galilee--700 feet below sea level, fed and drained by the Jordan River, and 13 miles long by 8 miles wide--is Israel's top source of water. It's also a popular tourist destination for Israelis and Christian tourists, and home to lots of fish.

This tourist map shows all the stops Christian tour groups can make to see where famous and beloved stories and lessons from the Bible took place.

Christian tour groups from all over the world make a vacation pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While Jerusalem is the major stop, they generally make a quick visit to Bethlehem (in the West Bank), and loop through the north to stop at several sights near the Sea of Galilee.

As a Christian, gazing out over the fabled Sea of Galilee and imagining Jesus walking on the water, I became more emotional than I had imagined I would be. Closing my eyes, I let the song of pilgrim groups singing in the distance, the sound of the little waves at my feet, and the breeze off the lake come together in a touching, personal moment.

At the altar of a new church, built atop the ruins and mosaics of a fifth-century church, is the rock upon which--according to tradition--Jesus laid the five loaves and two fish that managed to feed a gathering of 5,000.

The Church of the Primacy of St. Peter is especially important for Catholic pilgrims. Delightfully set on the Sea of Galilee, it's built upon the rock where, tradition holds, the resurrected Jesus ate with his disciples and told Peter to "feed my sheep." That is one reason why the Roman Catholic Church believes in the primacy of St. Peter.

At each Christian pilgrimage site, our Jewish guide Benny read with passion passages from the Bible. I found the scriptures talking about the Sermon on the Mount, feeding the masses with a few fish and loaves, Jesus calming the water, and the Beatitudes ("blessed are the meek," and so on) particularly impactful here on the sites where those events occurred.

From the Sea of Galilee (700 feet below sea level), the Jordan River flows south watering the fertile and strategic Jordan Valley, until it reaches the Dead Sea (about 1,300 feet below sea level). According to tradition, John the Baptist baptized Jesus where the Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee. Today, many Christians flock to this spot to be baptized or re-baptized. I found this sight the most lively...but the least spiritual.