Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology, cunningly cheats death twice. As punishment, Zeus condemns him to push a large, heavy rock up a hill. When Sisyphus and his rock reach the top, the rock rolls to the bottom, and Sisyphus must begin his task again — for all eternity. I can only imagine how Sisyphus must have felt each time he stood on the mountaintop, thinking for a moment that maybe this time the rock would stay put. How frustrated and disappointed he must have been as he watched it roll to the bottom yet again!
The story of a man by the pool of Bethesda reminds me of Sisyphus. In Jerusalem, Jesus encounters a man by the pool of Bethesda where people would go in search of healing. The first person to enter the pool after an angel caused the water to move would be healed. (See John 5:1-9, KJV.) Scripture says that the man “had been ill for thirty-eight years” and that when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed, the man said, “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” (vv. 5, 7, NRSV). John does not say how long the man had been waiting by the pool, only that “he had been there a long time” (v. 6).
How exceedingly frustrating it must have been for the man! Each time the water moved he had his chance, only to have someone make it to the water before him. I wonder how many times the man considered giving up. What kept him waiting by the pool? How did he deal with the fear that he might never make it to the water before someone else?
Too often it is easier to imagine that our lives bear more resemblance to Sisyphus than to the man by the pool — easier to imagine that our persistence will never pay off, that we are condemned to struggle forever against the burden of whatever challenge we are facing. What sets the man by the pool apart from the myth is not only the obvious miracle in the text but a second one that I see: the man remained by the pool. Against the odds, knowing he might never enter the water, he remained determined to try. We have the luxury of knowing how his story ends, but I wouldn’t fault the man for doubting that things would ever change for him. I can only imagine how easy it would have been for him to lose faith. Knowing that he kept trying makes the story all the more miraculous to me.
Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, pushing endlessly against stress, uncertainty, or exhaustion. When I stand on the mountaintop and watch my rock roll to the bottom, I remind myself of the stories from scripture that give me every reason to believe that things could be different. Jesus, speaking to the man by the pool, said, “‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man . . . took up his mat and began to walk” (v. 8). Although my life might not change as suddenly and I might not get the miracle I want or expect, I hold on to hope that tomorrow could be better than today. When I am at my lowest point and ready to quit, my faith gives me the strength and fortitude to keep going. And that in itself is often a miracle.
Several meditations in this issue address persistence and moving forward with faith. You may want to read again the meditations for July 4, 12, 20, 22, 25, 28, 31 and August 1, 2, 3, 7, 12, 21, and 27 before responding to the reflection questions below.
Questions for Reflection
1. When have you struggled with a task or life event that felt repetitive and futile? What did you learn from this experience?
2. Recall another miracle in scripture in which the character persists against the odds. What are some similarities between this miracle and the one found in John 5:1-9? What are some differences?
3. If you could ask the man whom Jesus healed one question, what would it be?