Rebecca Thompson fell twice from the Fremont Canyon Bridge. She died both times. The first fall broke her heart; the second broke her neck.
She was only eighteen years of age when she and her eleven-year-old sister were abducted by a pair of hoodlums near a store in Casper, Wyoming. They drove the girls forty miles southwest to the Fremont Canyon Bridge, a one-lane, steel-beamed structure rising 112 feet above the North Platte River. The men brutally beat and raped Rebecca. She somehow convinced them not to do the same to her sister Amy. Both were thrown over the bridge into the narrow gorge. Amy died when she landed on a rock near the river, but Rebecca slammed into a ledge and was ricocheted into deeper water. With a hip fractured in five places, she struggled to the shore. To protect her body from the cold, she wedged herself between two rocks and waited until the dawn.
But the dawn never came for Rebecca. Oh, the sun came up, and she was found. The physicians treated her wounds, and the courts imprisoned her attackers. Life continued, but the dawn never came. The blackness of her night of horrors lingered. She was never able to climb out of the canyon. So in September 1992, nineteen years later, she returned to the bridge.
Against her boyfriend’s pleadings, she drove seventy miles-per-hour to the North Platte River. With her two year-old daughter and boyfriend at her side, she sat on the edge of the Fremont Canyon Bridge and wept. Through her tears she retold the story. The boyfriend didn’t want the child to see her mother cry, so he carried the toddler to the car. That’s when he heard her body hit the water. And that’s when Rebecca Thompson died her second death. The sun never dawned on Rebecca’s dark night.
Why? What eclipsed the light from her world? Fear? Perhaps. She had testified against the men, pointing them out in the courtroom. One of the murderers had taunted her by smirking and sliding his finger across his throat. On the day of her death, the two had been up for parole. Perhaps the fear of a second encounter was too great.
Was it anger? Anger at her rapists? Anger at the parole board? Anger at herself for the thousand falls in the thousand nightmares that followed? Or anger at God for a canyon that grew ever deeper and a night that grew ever blacker and a dawn that never came?
Was it guilt? Some think so. Despite Rebecca’s attractive smile and appealing personality friends say that she struggled with the ugly fact that she had survived and her little sister had not.
Was it shame? Everyone she knew and thousands she didn’t had heard the humiliating details of her tragedy. The stigma was tattooed deeper with the newspaper ink of every headline. She had been raped. She had been violated. She had been shamed. And try as she might to outlive and outrun the memory . . . she never could.
So nineteen years later she went back to the bridge. Canyons of shame run deep. Gorges of never-ending guilt. Walls ribboned with the greens and grays of death. Unending echoes of screams. Put your hands over your ears. Splash water on your face. Stop looking over your shoulder. Try as you might to outrun yesterday’s tragedies—their tentacles are longer than your hope. They draw you back to the bridge of sorrows to be shamed again and again and again.
If it was your fault, it would be different. If you were to blame, you could apologize. If the tumble into the canyon was your mistake, you could respond. But you weren’t a volunteer. You were a victim.
Sometimes your shame is private. Pushed over the edge by an abusive spouse. Molested by a perverted parent. Seduced by a compromising superior. No one else knows. But you know. And that’s enough. Sometimes it’s public. Branded by a divorce you didn’t want. Contaminated by a disease you never expected. Marked by a handicap you didn’t create. And whether it’s actually in their eyes or just in your imagination, you have to deal with it — you are marked: a divorcee, an invalid, an orphan, an AIDS patient.
Whether private or public, shame is always painful. And unless you deal with it, it is permanent. Unless you get help—the dawn will never come.
You’re not surprised when I say there are Rebecca Thompsons in every city and Fremont Bridges in every town. And there are many Rebecca Thompsons in the Bible. So many, in fact, that it almost seems that the pages of Scripture are stitched together with their stories. You’ve met many in this book. Each acquainted with the hard floor of the canyon of shame.
But there is one woman whose story embodies them all. A story of failure. A story of abuse. A story of shame.
And a story of grace.
That’s her, the woman standing in the center of the circle. Those men around her are religious leaders. Pharisees, they are called. Self-appointed custodians of conduct. And the other man, the one in the simple clothes, the one sitting on the ground, the one looking at the face of the woman, that’s Jesus.
Jesus has been teaching.
The woman has been cheating.
And the Pharisees are out to stop them both.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4 NIV). The accusation rings off the courtyard walls.
“Caught in the act of adultery.” The words alone are enough to make you blush. Doors slammed open. Covers jerked back.
“In the act.” In the arms. In the moment. In the embrace.
“Caught.” Aha! What have we here? This man is not your husband. Put on some clothes! We know what to do with women like you!
In an instant she is yanked from private passion to public spectacle. Heads poke out of windows as the posse pushes her through the streets. Dogs bark. Neighbors turn. The city sees. Clutching a thin robe around her shoulders, she hides her nakedness.
But nothing can hide her shame. From this second on, she’ll be known as an adulteress. ‘When she goes to the market, women will whisper. When she passes, heads will turn. When her name is mentioned, the people will remember.
What does Jesus do? (If you already know, pretend you don’t and feel the surprise.)
Jesus writes in the sand.
He stoops down and draws in the dirt. The same finger that engraved the commandments on Sinai’s peak and seared the warning on Belshazzar’s wall now scribbles in the courtyard floor. And as he writes, he speaks: “Anyone here who has never sinned can throw the first stone at her” (v. 7).
The young look to the old. The old look in their hearts. They are the first to drop their stones. And as they turn to leave, the young who were cocky with borrowed convictions do the same. The only sound is the thud of rocks and the shuffle of feet.
Jesus and the woman are left alone. With the jury gone, the courtroom becomes the judge’s chambers, and the woman awaits his verdict. Surely, a sermon is brewing. No doubt, he’s going to demand that I apologize. But the judge doesn’t speak. His head is down, perhaps he’s still writing in the sand. He seems surprised when he realizes that she is still there.
“Woman, where are they? Has no one judged you guilty?”
She answers, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus says, “1 also don’t judge you guilty. You may go now, but don’t sin anymore”
If you have ever wondered how God reacts when you fail, frame these words and hang them on the wall. Read them. Ponder them. Drink from them. Stand below them and let them wash over your soul.
Or better still, take him with you to your canyon of shame. Invite Christ to journey with you back to the Fremont Bridge of your world. Let him stand beside you as you retell the events of the darkest nights of your soul.
And then listen. Listen carefully. He’s speaking.
“I don’t judge you guilty.”
And watch. Watch carefully. He’s writing. He’s leaving a message. Not in the sand, but on a cross. Not with his hand, but with his blood.
His message has two words: Not guilty.