Although Josie has Down’s Syndrome, he had been such a “big help” that day to his dad. After a summer of fun with all his brothers and their children at their pool, 20 year old Josie Vander Woude, living with his parents, was helping get the pool ready for winter. They did this together every year, and he was really good at holding one corner of the pool cover while his dad tied the other in place. While 66 year old Tom Vander Woude secured the final knot, Josie wandered over the small berm towards the horses. He never noticed the metal cover because he’d walked this way every day his entire life.
On September 8, 2008, Joseph Vander Woude stepped onto an old sewer cover, which broke through, sending him splashing to the bottom. He was confused, cold, and scared; he screamed and cried. Joseph’s father quickly came running.
The father of seven grown sons had recently settled into retirement from decades as a commercial pilot, and filled his days with service to his church and community. His other sons and their families had spent much time that summer at their home there with them in the country.
Tom looked into the dark sewer but was unable to recognize his child, in the dark tank and covered with filth, he saw movement and heard the gasping, “Daddy, Daddy!”
Without hesitation he jumped in to help his son. This was not simply a sewer that we might think of, containing storm water. This was a septic tank, filled with months of feces and human waste from the farmhouse. Josie embraced and climbed upon this man who had always been there for him. Tom struggled to get underneath his much smaller son to hold him up, his head above the disgusting muck. Still, Josie struggled to breathe the noxious methane gas that had replaced the oxygen in the air.
When the firemen finally arrived, Josie’s brother ran them over to the cistern. They were relieved to see Josie alive, although unconscious from the fumes. One of them remarked how lucky the boy was that the level wasn’t much deeper. He was just a few feet down, so the workers reached down and pulled him from the disgusting pit.
Tom Jr., and his mother frantically tried to get the words out, explaining to the firemen that Tom had jumped in, and was still down in the sewer. The tank hadn’t been so shallow after all, rather Josie’s unconscious head had been held up by his loving father. As he lifted Joseph up, his eyes closed, and he collapsed into the tank.
The firemen and the EMT that had now arrived had all been friends with Tom for years, small towns were like that. The flashlight search and frantic shouts were immediately answered with the splashes of two men into the darkness.
The grim task of securing a rope around their friend and lifting him out of the waste was performed quickly in complete silence. Unresponsive to their best efforts, Tom Vander Woude had left this world.
“It’s so right that he died saving one of us,” commented one of his sons. That’s just how he lived his life.
In fact every man is called upon to give himself to God and his neighbor. A boy learns this lesson of “self gift” in the family, particularly from his father. Even more important than a father’s words to his sons, is his example. When a father speaks of sacrifice through his actions, a boy learns the essence of manhood. Even in our skeptical, self-centered culture, something is compelling about the story of a father giving up his life for his son. It affirms everything we know to be right, and echoes the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.
As I read this beautifully tragic story of the Van der Woude family on Good Friday, I was so moved by the metaphor. We see the Lord, who lays down his life for us. And we’ve heard this message repeated until perhaps it loses some of its impact, until it hits closer to home.
Because our grief is not the “end of the story” when we encounter tragedy.
Psalm 30: At nightfall, weeping enters in, but with joy rejoicing. You preserved me from those going down into the pit. You changed my mourning into dancing. Oh Lord my God, forever I will praise you!
Do we have any grasp of what this means? Perhaps the Van der Woude story can show us more than we had considered.
Truly, the God of the universe became one of us. That sounds incredible, because it is. And when I look into the mirror, it is humbling to know that the “Creator of the Universe” cares enough about us, about me, that he would enter into this septic tank of a world to save me. Because of His love.
That He enters into the “muck,” and that He pushes us out of that “muck.” Each and every one of us are sinners, because we live in a sinful world, and that sin is deadly. It will lead to our death. But Jesus jumps into that muck, immerses Himself in it, in order that He can push us up out of the filth, that we might have salvation. That’s the story of salvation. That’s the story of His love for us. As St. Paul said in a phrase I’ve always had a hard time understanding, “He became sin for us. He takes on for us our failings. He enters into the muck of this world, so that we may be pushed out of it.
This story reminds us that love is so much stronger than death. Our life, in this fallen world, is but a journey, not just to God, but with God. We walk together to that life eternal, where there is no more weeping and tearing or anguishing over the past. Saint John Paul II, in his commentary on Psalm 30, states, “Nor should we fall into the illusion that we can save ourselves.” We need some one, if you will, to jump in and save us from our sins. And the good news is that Jesus is that one who we can climb upon, in order to be brought out, pushed up from this place.