Have you heard the one about Sisyphus and his rock?
He braces for one final heave as the “pitiless” boulder slips from his grasp and tumbles down Hades’ hill.
Again, and again.
“So once more,” Odysseus attests of Greek mythology’s Groundhog’s Day, “he had to wrestle with the thing and push it up, while the sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high above his head.”1
Never the resolution he craves. Never a rescue, exhale, or reprieve.
Always a summit he forever fails to reach.
Maybe something feels familiar here, even if you slept through Greek mythology like me:
“Who?” I queried my kids, as it surfaced between Minecraft lore and stupid memes.
“The boulder guy,” answered one.
“You didn’t learn that in school, either, mom?” followed the other, baffled by my “1900’s” deficiency.
compensated with indulged in Wikipediaand discovered there’s more to this story:
Maybe—in the mythical man heaving a boulder for the millionth time—we glimpse ourselves.
Innocent, Sisyphus was not. He stirred up enough trouble for two lifetimes—literally—as he twice cheated death. Loose-lipped Sisyphus’ deal with a river god sealed his fate: a new spring of water in his city for the whereabouts of Asopus’ daughter. Her captor, Zeus, sentenced Sisyphus to his bolder-heaving fate. Trouble the waters, by all means; just maybe not the chief deity, Zeus, with his lightning bolts and all.
Why does this bit of mythology still resonate today? What elevates it in tween conversation to the ranks of the Dream SMP and Polish cow memes, or prompt a forty-something down another Wikipedia rabbit hole?
Maybe it’s because a myth, as C.S. Lewis argues, is “at its best, a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”2 Maybe in the mythical man heaving a boulder for the millionth time, we see ourselves.
Peek over the swelling banks of the Mississippi,
linger at tidewater on an ocean’s edge,
or brace yourself on a mountain boulder as the snow melt roars beneath your feet . . .
and you will feel the paradox, as Sisyphus did, deep your bones:
Water wields life and death,
suffering and serenity,
healing and hurt.
Thirty-eight years . . .
since his legs obeyed.
Thirty-eight years—a lifetime by first-century standards—that he’s leaned into his boulder of immobility. Once more he pines for the “troubled waters” at Bethesda’s pool; to be the first to plunge into miracle waves that promise an instant cure. But there are others: porticos full of the blind, paralyzed, and lame lingering at this “house of mercy” to receive some.
Mercy for the swiftest in.
Was he scanning the surface for the slightest ripple—the smallest wave—when the Teacher approached? John’s gospel doesn’t describe this man’s literal gaze, but we glimpse a metaphorical one when Jesus asks,
With hope fixed on all but the One beside him, he answers,
“Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.”
In a word, the Healer turns his head back to Himself. Mercy incarnate:
“And immediately,” John writes, “the man was made whole, and took up his bed . . .”
Thirty-eight years . . .
I inched my own Sisyphean boulder uphill, only to watch it barrel down again.
Thirty-eight years with no exhale, no headway, no reprieve.
At thirty-eight, a verdict: “Your brain will ALWAYS find something to worry about,” my psychiatrist smirked as he looked up from his laptop like he was browsing the morning funnies instead of delivering a life sentence.
Four years of dismay and denial followed. Four years of trying to shake my shadow.
Four years of fighting and finally, this day, my brain is on lock screen.
Try harder. Distract yourself. Master the fear.
I stare at my four-year-old swimming in the shallows of our own Bethesda pool. There are no covered porticos here, just a handful of parents with Banana Boat streaks on their faces. Our squealing toddlers trouble chlorinated water, as we small talk on its edges.
I flash my best “I’m not having a breakdown” smile, as I slouch in the lawn chair—a shell of my former self—and fix my eyes on the pool.
I feel the boulder slip through my fingers as it drags me to the bottom again.
Desperate, I turn to the one next to me.
I’d love to tell you that “someone” was Jesus. That He called, over the giggles and splashing, “Nikki, will you be made whole? Get up! Pick up your REI folding chair and walk!”; that the chains fell off my imprisoned amygdala, and my brain was free.
There was no instant, poolside miracle on the day I hit bottom. But there was mercy.
Like at Bethesda’s waters centuries earlier, the Healer was there. He wasn’t the one sitting beside me with a red wagon full of juice boxes and towels. But, then again:
“I’m a psychologist,” she interjects as I stutter through sentences and fight back tears. She listens as my anxiety-disorder backstory spills out, like the water from my son’s plastic bucket.
This five-minute conversation with a complete stranger unearthed the first, critical steps in my path toward healing—even wholeness. Healing would come, though not instantly, never completely, and not at all in the way I wished. There are days when I roll my rock uphill only to feel it slip through my fingers again. But it’s a smaller rock now—not a boulder. I still have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but with the help of medication and cognitive therapy, it doesn’t have me.
How many times,
like Sisyphus, have you braced your bones for another uphill heave?
Maybe your rock is wrapped with regret. Or, it’s the crushing weight of chronic illness you wrestle towards the top. Maybe it’s just a sliver of hope for a miracle that keeps you inching forward. We close the book on Sisyphus’ journey here, but not our own. There’s much more to this story than immediate deliverance or an endless, uphill climb.
There’s much more to this story than immediate deliverance or an endless, uphill climb.
A deeper dive into Jesus’ pool-side healing reveals a prologue to something far more profound:
John tells us that the Bethesda man next collides with religious leaders. They overlook the miracle standing in front of them and convict the Sabbath Healer instead. So, Jesus troubles their waters with a revelation of His own: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
Jesus is the story here, with a mercy arc that bends right back to us. Mercy given not as we may want it, but exactly how we need it: from Him and through Him.
Don’t believe me? Ask the others in John’s gospel, who bookend the Bethesda healing:
The adulteress, Samaritan woman at a well received “living water” for her thirst.
The storm-tossed disciples longed for a rescue, and got a Ghost who walked the wind and waves, instead.
Scripture is full of troubled waters wielding life and death,
with mercy in the middle of it all.
The One who brought a crippled man to his feet at a pool,
and freed a woman for her first step at another,
waits for you, too.
So lean in to that boulder, friend,
and look up.
Image Credit: Ritvik Singh on Unsplash
1 Homer. The Odyssey. London : New York :W. Heinemann; G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1919.
2 Lewis, C. S. 1898-1963. 1947. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York, Macmillan Co.