What water polo taught me about life and Jesus

Ranger water polo

I will never forget the combat version of water polo that I played as a young sergeant in the US Army’s Ranger Regiment.

During my first few years in the army, my unit had the scout swimmer mission for the Ranger Regiment. Therefore, it was our responsibility to stay physically prepared for a waterborne infiltration anywhere in the world. Our conditioning exercise was to play water polo!

It sounds fun, right?… WRONG!  It didn’t matter if this was July in 110-degree heat or January with 35-degree water temperatures; my unit played the most vicious game of water polo known to man in outdoor pools. 

Only Rangers could turn a game like water polo into a violent preparation for combat. Our basic rules for water polo were as follows: Because this game was designed to condition us for swinging long distances, once a swimmer got in the water, he couldn’t get out of the water.  There was no break from swimming.  It was off limits to hold on to the sides of the pool to take a break from swimming.  

This game was played in the deep end of the pool with no rest until a winning team was declared.

Oh, and there was one more rule…  Once the ball is in play, anything goes! The basic rule was – no rules! Do whatever you must to get the ball into the net of the other team.

Trade a breath of air for the ball

Even though it’s been many years since I played this brutal game of water polo with other Rangers, I can still vividly remember how physically exhausted I was when I got out of the water after playing.

I also remember a life lesson, a lesson about faith that water polo taught me. More than once, I found myself with the water polo ball, being swarmed by Rangers from the opposite team. In this circumstance, every member of the other team grabbed for anything they could to get me to release the ball, in order to save my own life… literally!   

I was pummeled by the opposite team. They pulled me by the swim trunks, hair, arms, or legs to the bottom of the pool until I let go of the ball.  Every player from both teams understood that you had to trade control of the water polo ball for breath in your lungs.

I can’t breathe” was on everyone’s mind during this game. (This is not meant to trivialize the statement; we were deadly serious with these words.) We all understood before the game of water polo began, that a player would be pulled to the bottom of the pool and held there for an indefinite period of time until they gave up the polo ball.

The only way to get off the bottom of the pool was to let go of the ball. In fact, the statement that we often made before the game began was “let go of the ball when you want to breathe.” Without exception, the most physically demanding part of playing this game with Rangers was the amount of time I spent at the bottom of the pool.  

Most of us could swim for hours without a break.  But if you held onto the water polo ball, the other team would hold you under the water until you died.  This was an unwritten but understood rule of the game.  Like any good Ranger, I held onto the water polo ball in the face of violent opposition because I was unwilling to accept defeat or let the other team win! I think this part of the game was designed to reinforce the Ranger ethos of never surrender – death before defeat

Thinking about life at the bottom of the deep end

I don’t need to tell you that life looks a lot different from the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool. When looking through 20 feet of water from the bottom of the pool, the basic necessities of life start to become very clear. When you’re near the point of blacking out from lack of oxygen, you will do anything to get your next breath, including giving up possession of a water polo ball to the other team- as hard as that may be to accept.  

Take it from a guy who has gone through “shallow water blackout” more than once and woke up on the side of the pool with people kneeling over me pumping on my chest. 

Here’s a bit of groundbreaking information: We all need oxygen to survive! I realize that most of us take this for granted virtually every minute of the day. But, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t have air to breathe, you will immediately become aware of how dependent we are for our next breath.  

The long periods of time that I spent at the bottom of the pool hanging on to the water polo ball forced me to consider how important air is to human existence. People will react in some of the most severe ways when they are out of breath.  I had some of these severe reactions myself at the bottom of a swimming pool.

How about you? Have you forgotten just how important the air you breathe is? It’s easy to take something like this for granted because it’s always there any time we need it. It’s only after losing air that most people get desperate for their next breath.

Don’t forget you need to breathe

If I had a few moments with you, I would take you to the deep end of the swimming pool and play a “friendly” game of water polo just to remind you how easily we can take some things for granted.   We often take family for granted until after they pass away and then regret not giving the relationship more time. We can sometimes take our work or finances for granted until we lose a job and face bankruptcy.

And this is also true of faith. Sometimes we take the essentials of our faith for granted. 

I want to challenge the way you think about the Christian faith. The gospel of Jesus is like the air we breathe. There is never a time when a person isn’t dependent on the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to change or save him or her.  

I’ve met some Christians who give me the impression that they settled their account with God when they prayed a sinner’s prayer.  Now, they have moved beyond that prayer and no longer need the blood of Jesus Christ to change them. This is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian. In fact, this is the basis for all hypocrisy in the Christian church. 

No one ever gets to the point where they don’t need the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to continue to change them! From the first moment that Jesus saves our soul, until we take our last breath and stand before him in eternity, we are sinners in constant need of the gospel to change us.  

Just like we need air to breathe every moment of our life, so also, we need the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to continually change us into his image. Following Jesus Christ is a lot like playing water polo with Rangers. You learn quickly that you never get beyond the need for your next breath; you never move beyond your need for the gospel to continue to change you into the image of Christ. 

If you’ve never been changed by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, I want to give you an opportunity to make a sincere commitment to him for the first time. You can turn to him in an honest prayer that sounds something like this:   Lord Jesus, I recognize that I am a sinner. Just like my body cannot live without oxygen to breathe, so also my soul is dead without your gospel. Today, I turn from my sins and trust you as my savior for the first time. I’m asking you to begin to change me into your image. Amen

If you have followed Jesus Christ as your personal savior but you’ve since forgot how much you’re in need of his gospel to continue to change you, I want to challenge you to pray something like this today: Lord Jesus, forgive me for ever getting to the point where I feel like I can be good enough without you. Just like I need oxygen to continue to survive, so also, I need your gospel to help me live the life that you have called me to live. I ask you to continue to change me into your image. Amen.

If you’ve made one of these simple prayers today from a sincere heart, I’d like to know about it. Please email me at  info@2citieschurch.com .

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