It is January, 1982. A heavy blanket of wet snow covers Washington, D.C. The snow has slowed down everything in its path. Businesses and the government have closed down early. The roads and the bridges crossing the frozen Potomac River are jammed. Seventy-five cities have reported record-breaking cold temperatures. For a moment the weather breaks and Washington National Airport finally reopens. A Boeing 737 headed for Florida with seventy-four people aboard is finally given permission to take off.
The plane begins to roll down the main runway facing the icy Potomac River. It lifts off but suddenly loses air speed due to ice that has reformed on the wings and tail. The 737 starts to head right into the river. Desperately, with its engines at full throttle, the pilot tries to get the plane into the air, but he cannot do it.
The plane hits the edge of the 14th Street Bridge and plunges into the ice-clogged river. Seventy-four people are submerged in frigid water but only five surface. Emergency crews are called. They struggle desperately to get through the clogged roadways to the scene. Some of the survivors cling to debris. A tennis racket floats on the cold water, a grim reminder of an ill-fated trip to Florida.
A helicopter appears and lowers a life preserver to the stranded passengers. One person is near it but can’t quite reach it. Then a nearby passenger reaches up and grabs it. The stranded rush hour crowd is watching breathlessly from the bridge, forgetting all else for the moment. Instead of putting the preserver on, the man maneuvers it to another passenger and helps her into it. She is pulled into the helicopter and it flies off, dropping her at the shoreline. It reappears and the process is repeated. The ring is lowered to the same man but he painstakingly moves through the water and puts it on another man. This man is raised and rescued. The onlookers cheer.
The life preserver is lowered a third time. A man on shore sees one passenger nearing the shoreline and he jumps in the water and pulls him to safety. Meanwhile the man in the water lowers the life preserver onto a third passenger. She is taken to safety. The helicopter returns and the gathering crowd in the growing dusk and cold watch as the preserver is lowered the last time. The last man is too far out and can’t be reached from the shore. The preserver goes down but the man who saved the others has gone under. The crowd is silent as they wait for him to reappear. One minute passes, two, five, but he does not resurface. Finally, they realize he is gone.
The scene is replayed on TV that evening and everyone watches the daring rescue. Unbelievably the man on the shore is seen jumping in, unthinkingly risking hypothermia and death himself to rescue one person. Everyone is touched, but all hearts go out to the man in the water.
No one watching from the bridge or river bank or on the TV knew who this man was, who unselfishly passed the life preserver to everyone else, when he could have taken it at any time himself, until there was no chance for him to be saved. No one knew his motivation. But all were touched by his totally unselfish act.
Many people stood at the base of a hill in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago. No cameras recorded this event. But it has never been forgotten. Here another man reached out to those around him and pulled all who were willing from a cold death. He rescued everyone he could, and then he, too, gave his life in the process.
The Romans didn’t understand. The Jews didn’t understand. And worse yet, the Jewish religious leaders didn’t understand. They had what they wanted. Little did it matter who else was saved. In fact, it seemed better for this man to die. They watched from the shore, from the bridge, from the sidelines. They held their breath. But they were not touched when he died. They saw the people he rescued, the people none of them would risk their lives for. Far worse than a cold, frozen river was their hearts. They were far colder than the Potomac that fateful January day.
But there were some who appreciated what the man did. The ones he rescued knew what a sacrifice he made. They knew they’d have gone under and been lost forever if it weren’t for this man. What did he get out of it? He lost his own life saving theirs. They didn’t understand his motivation. But they appreciated the sacrifice.
Maybe we have to be in the water to understand. It’s easy to cheer from the sidelines. It’s easy to drive off and forget the scene and live our own lives. I doubt that those survivors from the water will easily forget. Somehow I think their lives have been changed. Somehow I think this man’s sacrifice was not in vain, at least not to them.
I believe, too, that this man on the hill that onlookers watched die, did not die in vain. He rescued as many as he physically could get to. But there were so many more who were going under, who were helpless to pull themselves out, to rescue themselves. He could only reach a limited number of people in his own lifetime, even if he lived to be a hundred. Yet after only thirty-three years, he knew he could save more people if he’d give up his own life. So he went under. He submitted himself to the cold water, the depths of sin, which he’d never known, to rescue those who’d never have a chance otherwise. Many on the sidelines saw their plight. But few would dive in the water themselves and risk their own lives to save them. He didn’t question whether they deserved to be saved. He only knew they’d go under without him.
Are you in the water today? Do you need a man to reach out to you, to risk everything to give you a chance to live? Would you refuse the life preserver if you were one of the five in the Potomac? Would you refuse this man’s sacrifice?
The one who wants to rescue you, to save you, is as real as the one in the water. You may not understand it all. But all you need to understand is that you need to be rescued. If you realize you cannot do it yourself, someone is reaching out now to save you. A life preserver has come your way. Reach out and grab it while it is being offered. Don’t go under. Let this man’s sacrifice save you. ■