On January 30, three young brothers were canoeing the Salmon Creek in Washington state. The river current was strong that day, swollen by a week’s worth of rain, and the boys found themselves unable to control their small craft in the rushing water. The boat capsized, sending the three boys—the youngest of which was eight—into the icy cold water.
On shore, Nelson Pettis heard the screams of help from the frightened youngsters. He quickly scanned the creek, and saw three heads bobbing in the water. In a split second, he chose to put himself at risk, diving into the rapids in an attempt to save the boys. Soon, two other men—Larry Bohn and Jon Fowler—joined Pettis in the creek. Fighting the current, they were able to direct the boys to dry land, dodging fast-moving debris as they made their way to shore.
The three men are rightly being hailed as heroes who risked life and limb to save the lives of boys they had never met. And yet, the most interesting part of the story might be why these heroes were in the vicinity of the creek in the first place.
As fate would have it, Pettis, Bohn, and Fowler were performing maintenance work at a nearby park at the time of the capsizing, members of a work release program from the nearby Larch Correctional Center.
“I think we did something that any good person would do,” said Fowler after the rescue. “You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. That’s what you do. Just ‘cause we’re incarcerated doesn’t mean we’re bad people. We made some bad choices in our lives, but we’re still, we’re just like everybody else. We’re just paying our debt for what we did wrong.”
To the boys who needed rescuing, the criminal backgrounds of their rescuers were immaterial. All that mattered to them was that these men were willing to do what they could to save their lives.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples the story about a man who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. During his trip, he was attacked by thieves, and left bloodied and bruised on the side of the road. In two instances, religious leaders passed by the man, only to turn a blind eye, even moving to the other side of the road to avoid him.
A third man happened upon the beaten traveler. He was a Samaritan—hated by all “true” Israelites as a betrayer of Jewish tradition, teachings, and customs. Yet this man did what the two previous men did not do—he attended to the needs of the wounded man, bandaged his wounds, and made sure he had a place to stay for the evening.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asks. “The one who had mercy on him,” His disciples correctly reply.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus commands.
In the case of the three drowning boys, their neighbors happened to be three men who were serving sentences in a local prison. They were the ones who acted in mercy—giving of themselves sacrificially save the lives of strangers. And in so doing, they were acting in a way reflecting of God Himself, who gave His life so that others could live.
It helps to be reminded as Christians that our “neighbors” aren’t always those whom we would readily choose. Instead, we are called to serve those in need—to provide clothes to the poor, to care for the sick, and to visit those in prison. In so doing, Jesus tells us, we are serving the Lord. We might even find out that those neighbors are “just like us”—sinners dependent on God’s redeeming love.
“Go, and do likewise.”