The 39-year-old Dutchman and his team-mates survived a burst sewage pipe in the their dressing room and a first-half onslaught on the pitch to head away from the Stadium of Light with a draw, their fourth in succession away from home in the Premier League.
But for the efforts of van der Sar and skipper Nemanja Vidic, the 0-0 scoreline might have been very different as Steve Bruce threatened to finally secure a first victory as a manager over his former boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
The keeper made a fine 16th-minute save from Steed Malbranque after the Frenchman has waltzed through the United defence to collect Lee Cattermole's pass, and Vidic got in a vital block to repel Nedum Onuoha's snapshot.
Van der Sar needed the help of a post to keep out compatriot Bolo Zenden's 37th-minute strike from distance, and although United, who were without Wayne Rooney, improved significantly with Dimitar Berbatov's introduction as a half-time substitute, they were happy to hear the final whistle when it came.
Van der Sar said: "We were happy to go in at half-time with a 0-0. In the last 15 minutes we had one or two chances, but not enough to get the winner.
"I don't think we put enough in our offensive game to really claim the three points. I don't think the service was sufficient to get the goal in the end.
"We can be happy that we had a clean sheet, the second in a row after Valencia on Wednesday, but I think it was two dropped points today, because we dropped too many already in away games.
"We were disappointed with a draw at Bolton, we got a nice win in Valencia which sets us well for the Champions League and of course today, you are looking for a win to close the gap a little bit."
The gap to leaders Chelsea stood at two points on Saturday evening ahead of the Blues' home clash with Arsenal, not yet a major problem, but one which will increase in magnitude if United cannot address their problems on the road.
To date, they have squandered leads at Fulham, Everton and Bolton and came mightily close to a first defeat of the season at the Stadium of Light.
To that end, Ferguson was able to take comfort from the performances of Vidic and the fit-again Rio Ferdinand, who were re-united to good effect in the north-east.
The manager said: "The first 20 minutes in particular, they [Sunderland] kept bombing the crosses in, and they are good at that.
"They put that ball in the box and of course [Darren] Bent has a very good spring and he is a good header of the ball, and he is a threat on those crosses.
"But we handled it, we got through it without being absolutely brilliant."
Ferguson insisted that his side's preparations had not been unduly disrupted by the plumbing emergency which provided an interesting start to their afternoon in Sunderland.
However, several members of the squad left with less luggage than which they had arrived.
Van der Sar said: "We came back in after the warm-up and they told us to go in a different room.
"We didn't go into the dressing room because the smell was horrendous.
"There are a lot of suits, shoes and wash bags that have had to be thrown away.
"Albert [Morgan, kit manager] was struggling to get the shin pads clean. It was a rare moment."