His name is Chris. He captured my attention yesterday – as he did of thousands of others. Yesterday, Chris completed an Ironman 140.6 in Florida. For those of you who may not know what this is, it is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile run. One right after the other, in one day, timed. As amazing of a feat as it is, people complete an Ironman on a regular basis – thousands do this or have done this. This was Chris’ first. And he did it. We had someone from Goldsboro who completed it yesterday named Josh. It is something you train for and work for and still there is a possibility of not completing it. Yet, Josh did it. And Chris did it. Prior to yesterday, I had not heard of Chris. But I know of him now. It isn’t because Chris was the first through the finish line. He didn’t break any time records. He was a male who completed Ironman Florida. Yet, he was also the first person with Down Syndrome to ever complete an Ironman. That’s right, Chris has Down Syndrome. And Chris completed a nearly impossible feat. Chris is an Ironman.
At some point, he had a goal. He had people who believed in him. He had a coach that was willing to train him and guide him through the entire course. But Chris had to complete the whole thing under his own power. Someone saw something in Chris beyond being a young man with Down Syndrome. Someone saw an athlete. And now, we all see an incredible athlete.
A couple of weeks ago, a song was stuck in my head. That’s not all that unusual, I think in songs. At work, we communicate in songs. But this particular song continued to play over and over again. I looked it up on YouTube so I can hear others sing it. I thought it was stuck in my head because of Robin’s baptism. But turns out, it was stuck in there much longer. And there is a powerful message. It is a Negro Spiritual from the late 1800s and early 1900s. While it is believed to be a song to help slaves navigate as they escaped, it also alludes to two different scriptures – one of Moses and the other, we will look at today. This song brings me here.
5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
The song goes – Wade in the water – wade in the water children – God’s gonna trouble the waters. Here is a man at the edge of the water, but not wading. And Jesus asks an interesting question. Can you imagine the thought of the man who has been approached by Jesus? First, can you imagine Jesus even making his way through a group of sick folks. He could look from a distance and think about those poor, pitiful people. He could pass them by and avoid being unclean – it was the Sabbath after all. He could have ignored they were there – religious people had been doing this for years. But he didn’t. He went there, on purpose. He had something to do. He had to see people.
And there was a man who John records has been sick 38 years. That’s a long time to sit by the water. He has been there so often, he has a place, his own space. This is his home – but he is only steps from the promise. He can’t move forward because he has been stuck in hopelessness. He doesn’t see a possibility to move from where he is. He has reached his destination – and it is devastating. The legend of the water is that when the angel stirs the water, the first in becomes healed. He just wants his shot at it. Yet, every time the opportunity comes, he is passed by. You can imagine after 38 years, one just feels like it will never happen. He is there to stay – to watch others reach the water first – to watch others find healing while he sits and waits, never to be healed.
Yet, Jesus asks him what seems to be a question with a glaringly obvious answer – do you want to be made well? Think about it – Jesus asks a man that has been sick for 38 years if he wants to be made well. While it seems this is a ridiculous question, Jesus doesn’t just ask things for no reason. He isn’t trying to ridicule him. He isn’t trying to insult him. He needs this man to consider – do you really want to be made well? Do you really want to move past this? Because when you are living in the land of hopelessness, you may not even know what it means to be made well anymore. Because your mat becomes your comfort and being well becomes the impossible. It has long been put out of his mind as a possibility. It likely hasn’t even been a part of his thoughts for so many years now.
Hopelessness, defeat and dismay can easily become the norm. When I looked at this guy in the past, I wanted to tell him to move closer to the water. I wanted to tell him how to reach the water first. I wanted to teach him how to move his mat so he could be the most agile even despite his illness. I wanted to see him reach the water and couldn’t, for the life of me, understand how he could just sit there while others received the healing. That is, until I experienced what hopelessness feels like. It is emptying. It is defeating. And it runs so deep that all desire to move forward has been drained out of you. And then I got it. He couldn’t get to the water, not because he didn’t want to, but because he didn’t know how.
When you have sat on the mat for so long, people see you as belonging on the mat. This man had sat on the mat for so very long that he became ‘the sick man’. His life was lived as the sick man. His identity was the man who was sick. He lived so close to healing but would never make it because he would always be the sick man. Why would anyone help him because being sick was who he was? Why would anyone offer hope – he had lost it – so why wouldn’t everyone else believe he was hopeless too? Yet, Jesus didn’t define him by his illness. His mat was not his home. This was not his final destination. There was life off the mat – even if the man couldn’t see it and the people around him couldn’t see it – God could and God did.
Jesus looked at the man and saw him. He was not the sick. Those people gathered around that water were not the blind, lame, helpless forgotten people. To Jesus, they were the beloved. They were children of God. So he asks him – do you want your hope restored because I see so much more in you than you see in yourself? Do you want to see what life is really like off the mat? Do you want to break the barriers placed by the people around you? Do you want to see what it is like to not be defined by the mat and this illness? If that’s a yes, pick it up and let’s go. And he did.
If you know the story, you know this is not the end. The man is questioned and Jesus gets into a lot of trouble for this. He gets in trouble because he healed on the Sabbath. The man gets in trouble because he picked up his mat – against the law because it is defined as work on the Sabbath. They get in trouble because they saw beyond the rules of the day. The religious people were furious that a man who had been sick for 38 years was healed on the wrong day. I wonder how many of the rules we have made up in the name of religion Jesus would break today? And we would be mad about him making people well. Don’t be upset at those religious leaders because that defines way too much of the church today. Follow the rules, forget the people.
But ultimately, the man got up because the mat was not his home. Even though people had placed him there and told him to stay…you are the sick man and this is where you belong…Jesus saw more. The story about Chris that I started with in the beginning – I don’t know Chris, I have just followed his journey. But I can only imagine the people who told him he couldn’t do it. I can only imagine those who would have said that it was too much for him to attempt. I can hear people tell his family about how he could hurt himself or this would put too much strain on him and they weren’t caring for him. I don’t know his whole story – but I hear this kind of thing all the time in different circumstances. We want people to be who we want them to be – even if it means they stay on the mat.So if you find yourself hopeless on the mat today, I encourage you to look up, Jesus stands before you to show you a new way. If you know of someone on the mat that has lost all hope, love them, see them and encourage them. You can’t pick them up but you also shouldn’t be the one holding them down. Wherever you may find yourself this morning – the mat is not your home. God has so much more planned – and it might just take breaking the rules in love. Take up your mat and walk, God has beautiful things planned for his people who follow him. Rise up, there is still good to be done.