01 Jul What does a cup of cold water really mean?
What is Jesus talking about?
When Jesus says, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” I immediately think how lucky I am to have little ones in my home that demand cups of cold water regularly- so I get to re-enact this passage all the time 😊 Of course, Jesus in his wisdom probably didn’t have my thirsty children in mind when he said this. But this line from Jesus gets us thinking though- especially today. What does a cup of cold water really mean? Who are the little ones? And how can we welcome people and serve people with Christ’s love and grace even in a pandemic?
To set the scene a little, this is the third part of this section of the gospel of Matthew where Jesus is talking to his disciples about what it takes to really follow him. So far he has made it clear that following him requires finding lost sheep, curing the sick, not packing when you travel, and other sacrifices, including giving up family connections that would have been a part of one’s livelihood. Along with all of that, not only would your life change, but Jesus tells them that there was real danger- danger even of death because of the message he is preaching, which challenges everything and points directly to the kingdom of God. And now he talks about welcome and Christian living, including the very real demands of Christian hospitality.
To provide hospitality and welcome in the time of Jesus was very important and there were requirements to appropriately welcome a guest, a loved one, a friend, even a stranger. But Jesus challenges the norms of welcome with his statement of little ones and cold water. Because here he tells us that not only are we to welcome people we know and love and who can reciprocate, but this statement about little ones isn’t about children at all. The little ones Jesus is referring to, is anyone who is in need and cannot or will not return any favors. You can picture someone like that can’t you? A beloved friend who struggles with depression and when she is in the throes of it, she cannot give anything of , not because she doesn’t want to, but because she can hardly get out of bed. Or that relative who always asks for something and so you have learned to stop answering the phone when they call. Or the people in your life you want to have deeper relationships with, but never quite have the time. To say that little ones are only children, isn’t getting to the point of what Jesus is saying here- the little ones are us, all of us, especially in those moments when our lives are messy and falling apart, especially in those moments when we need grace from God and those around us to help us get through.
And for someone to give you a cup of cold water is different than an ordinary act of hospitality or kindness. It is someone going out of their way to give you something to refresh your soul. Jesus specifically says a cup of cold water, knowing that the water from the sink or cistern isn’t going to cut it, it isn’t cold after sitting around all day. The person providing the cold water is going to actually have to walk to the well, maybe in the heat of the day, maybe at the most inconvenient time, carry the water back and fill up a cup just for you. They just gave up time and energy and who knows what else to serve the little one- they made a sacrifice for the benefit of the other. And they know they aren’t going to get anything in return- that isn’t why they did it in the first place.
The Sunshine Ninjas
When I am not feeding and giving my children something to drink (which seems like that happens constantly)- I am a part of a church staff committee called the Sunshine Ninjas. And it is the most fun I have ever had on a committee! We plan celebrations and thank yous for staff members (that’s the spreading sunshine part) and then we make them happen (which takes a bit of planning and a little bit of secrecy- that’s the ninja part). We started this committee just as the pandemic started and have had to be especially creative with how we celebrate. Instead we have delivered flowers and balloons, we have decorated drive-ways with sidewalk chalk and given away chocolate. And the best part is that we don’t get anything in return, other than spreading some joy to our fellow staff members that we care about. To me it feels like a moment of refreshment in the middle of a serious time. A cup of cold water when my soul is thirsting to return to normalcy. Because before, there was joy in singing happy birthday during a staff meeting, sharing a cake, being together. And now our celebrations look different, but the soul refreshing part is still there.
One Bible commentary, described the Christ-motivated welcome we give to others as the adventure of Christian hospitality. The thing that always surprises me about living as a follower of Jesus, is that it takes you places you never though you would go and it makes you go on journeys you might have otherwise said no to- it really is an adventure. And yes, there is often a giving up of something on the way, some sort of sacrifice for the sake of grace. Whether it is your time, or your money or leaving behind your expectations and opening your mind to a different way- there is a sense of adventure. Has the adventure of Christian hospitality taken you anywhere? I have to say that more than any other type of adventure, hospitality through my faith has taken me much further and into places I might not have otherwise ventured. From staff member’s driveways during a pandemic to a 5k for LGBTQ youth to serving meals to homeless folks in Chicago to welcoming new church members for dinner at my house. And that same hospitality- cups of cold water- have been shared with me especially when I needed it most.
You Have to Care
Can you think of a time when someone has gone out of their way to make you feel welcome? To make you feel at home? That feeling of love, that feeling of acceptance and belonging, that feeling of relief at undeserved grace- that is the essence of the community Jesus is speaking about. That is the kingdom of God. Where we see one another as fellow children of one unite family of faith. And we are reminded that for this kind of community to come about, it requires us to give up something sometimes. It requires us to care. It requires us to stop asking who gets the bigger portion or who has the most influence or power and to instead look for the little ones who don’t even have a cup of cold water. It requires us to admit that sometimes those little ones who need cold water are us.
What Jesus is describing here through Christian hospitality, little ones and water is actually the definition of mercy. To have mercy is for the one with the power to punish to act with kindness, forgiveness and compassion instead. The powerful thing about mercy is that the one in position of power doesn’t have to do it. They don’t have to, but they do anyway. When we talk about the mercy of God, we are acknowledging that God, the almighty, the powerful, the creator of the universe, doesn’t have to have grace for us, but does anyway. It is a pure gift motivated by love. And when we have mercy on others or they have mercy on us- in our life of faith as followers of Jesus Christ- we are sharing in that same exact motivation. The love of God. That is why Jesus says, whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. And then goes on to talk about the motivation of welcoming prophets and the righteous and finally the little ones.
Because when faced with welcoming a disciple or Jesus or Godself- I think I would be nervous I wasn’t doing it right, but I would try. And when faced with welcoming a prophet or a righteous person, I would know they deserved a good welcome and so I would be willing, but a bit intimidated. But for the little ones, the ones who may or may not be good, who may or may not be preaching God’s word, who may or may not be righteous- to welcome them, the power is suddenly in my hands. I don’t have to. But Jesus tells us to welcome them anyway. To have grace for them anyway because someday we may be one of them AND because we are not motivated by power or influence or authority- we are children of God motivated by God’s love.
This is Following Jesus
This is the grace-filled, merciful adventure of discipleship. It can take us to unexpected places among unexpected people and sharing love in big and small ways with our lives. Following Jesus means our lives will require sacrifice. To put someone else before ourselves requires us to give something up and the flip side of that, to recognize when we are the ones in need of grace requires us to be vulnerable enough to receive it. But this is the adventure we are invited to take part in- to give and receive mercy and grace brings joy into this world. To give a little one a cup of cold water is in itself a reward. Oftentimes this reward language has us thinking about heaven and eternal life, but there is a reward in this life in sharing God’s love and receiving God’s grace.
I keep dreaming of the day when our hospitality and welcome can take place inside these church walls again. But friends in Christ, the adventure of our faith hasn’t stopped. God’s mercy and love hasn’t stopped. And our unity as one Body of Christ hasn’t stopped either. Thanks be to our merciful, loving God.