Believing in the Impossible: Lessons from Easter and Diana Nyad

Diana Nyad wanted nothing more than to achieve the impossible. Her last name “Nyad” means water nymph and she took that name very seriously. In the 1970s Diana, had become famous for attempting these long-distance, seemingly impossible swims. She swam around the island of Manhattan (water most people actively avoid) and from the Bahamas to Florida. But before retiring from the sport at 29, she had one more outrageous dream – to swim from Cuba to Florida. This would mean swimming for 103 miles nonstop, over three to four days, through rough waters – home to lethal jellyfish and sharks.

This didn’t stop her from jumping right in. “What keeps me going,” she said, “is that I have this real vision of the other shore.” But after two days, she couldn’t reach it. The currents were too rough and she was pulled from the water.

Diana Nyad, Ernesto Mastrascusa—LatinContent Editorial/Getty Images

Diana was devastated. Her dream was just too big. And so, she closed that chapter and pursued other ventures on land. But as time passed, she couldn’t seem to silence that voice inside her bones saying, “Don’t lose hope. Keep dreaming. This is not the end of your story.”

Why believe in the impossible? 

What does it do for us, besides pave a road for disappointment and keep us fixated on a fantasy? Isn’t this sort of believing…immature? unfair? unrealistic? After all, we live in a world that feels more like Good Friday and Holy Saturday than Easter morning. We human beings seem to be at war with ourselves. There is ugliness and violence all around us. God’s grace feels hard to come by. Neighbors are pitted against neighbors. The climate is heating up and the air is already so fogged with racism and antisemitism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, the list goes on and on. And on top of it all, COVID is still creeping through the cracks. Our mental health needs attention and our bills are piling up. Our personal losses and struggles are many. And just this recently, out of nowhere, a bridge was struck down in Baltimore. Sometimes holding onto hope can feel as outlandish as believing in the impossible.

In Israel, a father prays for the safe return of his son being held hostage. He has waited far too long to hold his boy in his arms. He says, “Last week we had some hope that they could get more people out, and we waited to see if we’d be the next ones to get lucky. But we didn’t have any luck. The high hopes are now on the floor.”

A young Palestinian man writes each day from Gaza, as the destruction and devastating loss of life become unbearable, “I am completely numb.” He says, “I don’t have the energy to be hopeful. The other day I found my mother crying. When I asked her the reason she said, ‘I am hungry. Very hungry.’ Truth is, we haven’t even seen a vegetable in five months.”

When we hear stories like this – happening right now, today – we may feel somewhat lost this Easter season. We may even feel unsure if an ancient, seemingly impossible story about God’s power over death, has something to offer our interfaith community, as we trudge through this time together. Let’s face it. Even Jesus’ closest friends struggled to believe the shocking words: “He is risen.” And why not? It had been a harrowing week.

It began with a full-body celebration! Jesus and his friends entered Jerusalem. There were palms waving and people shouting, “Hosanna!”

Then, as the days passed, the mood shifted. Jesus tenderly washed his friends’ feet like a servant. He broke bread and poured wine. He asked them to remember him after he was gone and to carry on his ministry.

Then, a betrayal and arrest. These friends witnessed their rabbi and teacher, Jesus, tortured and executed.

Then, darkness and silence. Jesus’ body was left in a tomb and his disciples hid for fear of their lives. What began as a week brimming with hope had unraveled into a state of despair.

Then, the impossible: the Gospel writer Luke shares that on the third day at dawn, the women came to the tomb where Jesus was buried. They found the stone rolled away and when they went in, his body was gone. Then, two figures in dazzling clothes appeared and said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” 

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

Surely, it’s a question we can ask ourselves any day of the week. We human beings can get so stuck, so paralyzed by the morning headline, the status quo, the rejection letter, the failed exam, the broken relationship. We can sink so deeply into our own grief and shame, our own prejudice, our feelings of inadequacy. We can spend a lifetime standing at the doorway of an empty tomb, peering in, perplexed by what isn’t there. Never realizing, for a moment that there is much more to be found if only we have the courage to look closer, to look beyond, to believe in what feels impossible.

This was a dark, empty tomb, but it was brimming with new life. Inside was hope beyond the women’s wildest dreams, clear direction, and purpose. Divine love, liberation, and light were bouncing off the stones and shooting outward. What seemed like the end of their story was just the beginning. 

The acclaimed Black poet Maya Angelou knew life’s many ups and downs all too well. A survivor of trauma and abuse, she penned cherished poetry that speaks of survival and liberation. One of her most acclaimed poems, “Still I Rise” centers on courage and hope in the face of slavery and racism. Here is an excerpt:

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise…

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise…

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Her words remind us that this morning’s cry, “He is Risen” offers us a message that can transcend backgrounds and traditions – inviting us to encounter those most vulnerable today, with the words: “You shall rise. And how, if I may, can I help you be lifted high?”

There would be no Easter story for us to share today, if the women had kept all that had seen and heard to themselves, if they had returned home quietly, doubting their experience, turning to their diaries. Instead, they ran. They dropped their spices and threw off their sandals, and ran to tell the disciples what had just happened. Out of breath, they debated with them and put up their laughter, and pushed them to go and see for themselves. 

What courage, what chutzpah, what faith it took to put themselves out there: to challenge the disciples to dream bigger, to not lose hope, to run towards a new chapter, to be amazed.

Perhaps more important than the question, “Why believe in the impossible?” is the question, “What is possible when we believe?

When Diana Nyad turned 60, that still, small voice inside kept saying that her Cuba-to-Florida dream could be achieved. And so, after 31 years, she jumped back into the water and began to slowly train for the impossible. She surrounded herself with friends, experts, and specialists to support her along the way.

The first swim she attempted failed. She tried again, and then again, and again, and again. On the fifth attempt, the water and marine life cooperated and her body pushed harder than ever before, helping her to reach that other shore. Out of breath, she told those on the sand: “Never, ever give up. You’re never too old to chase your dreams. And it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.” 

What is possible when we believe?

This Easter season, may we feel in our bones that even in this most uncertain, complex, divisive time, we must never throw our hands up and lose faith. Somehow, someway, may we still be amazed by a God who calls us out from our despair and offers us a liberating, life-altering vision of that other shore – where the impossible is possible, where there is still good work to be done. We are a team, after all: an interfaith community that is doing what many say can’t be done – loving, supporting, and raising up one another across differences, writing our own, hopeful story side-by-side.

So, let’s get running and swimming – moving forward and outward together, inspiring each other to never stop trying to use the gifts we’ve been given to help mend all this brokenness.  

May we help one another feel the air beneath our feet, and may we always believe in a world of wondrous possibilities.



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