“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 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.”
This week I asked in one of my Facebook groups for stories of when people had received a metaphorical cup of cold water—those small gifts that can make a big difference. Here are a few of the stories I heard.
Samantha wrote: “One of the first times I was away from home was at a church event and I couldn’t sleep. One of the chaperones called our room and sang me a lullaby to help my uneasiness. It was super awkward and simultaneously beautiful.”
Linda wrote: “When my fiancé died suddenly while I was in seminary, two of my colleagues sensed that my return to school would be difficult. When I arrived for class, they had saved a seat for me between them and they did this every class that semester. I felt protected, cared for, and loved.”
Sara wrote: “After my divorce, I felt really alone and unsure of who I was or what was going to happen with my son and me. One of my childhood friends from church kept inviting me to come to church and I did, feeling very raw and broken. My childhood church accepted my imperfections and grief and helped me heal. I will always be grateful to my friend for her gift.”
Suzanne told me about when she was homeless with a one-year-old child. She had just gotten a job and found an apartment but they wanted a cosigner. She said, “A person I barely knew co-signed an apartment application for me. Nothing was asked in return other than I keep up the rent payment. At the same time, an online group of strangers arranged for diapers for my child and a few days in a hotel. I honestly thing I would not be where I am today without that kind deed.”
These acts of kindness were not huge, but they made a difference. All four of the people whose story I shared are now pastors serving in the United Church of Christ.
We all have been on the receiving end of such gifts, and we all have been on the giving end, too. I am positive that if you weren’t so humble, I would know hundreds of stories about how you and other members of this church make a difference:
the client you helped cut through the red tape because you believed in him;
the employee you gave a second chance to when she didn’t deserve it;
the teenager you welcomed into your home;
the way you advocated for that student because her parents couldn’t or wouldn’t.
We have given countless metaphorical cups of cold water. And sometimes we give literal cups of cold water.
Between the years of 1960 and 1990, the white population of Atlanta, Georgia, decreased by 60%. One of the casualties of this so-called “white flight” was the historically white churches of the area. St. Mark’s United Methodist Church was failing. Their pastor once described their situation by saying “We would drive in from the suburbs, worship together, then chain the doors and drive back home until the next Sunday.” By 1992 they were down to a handful of people and were on the verge of folding. But one Sunday in June, a woman they called “Miss Mary” was the last one in the building. As she was cleaning up after coffee hour, she heard the sounds of the parade coming—the gay pride parade that passed by their front door every year. She got to thinking about how hot it was—why, it was nearly 100 degrees out there, and surely the parade people were thirsty. So Miss Mary got an Igloo cooler and a couple hundred little paper cups. She filled the cooler with water and ice, put everything on a rolling cart, and went out to give ice water to the parade participants as they walked by the church. In 1992 in Atlanta, a church offering kindness to participants in gay pride was something new. (The church across the street had hired armed guards to protect their property!) Some of the participants saw this and decided to try St. Mark’s, and the congregation began to grow. The last I heard, the church had 1700 members. The turnaround started because one woman gave a cup of cold water.
Walter Wangerin, a well-known writer, teacher, and pastor, tells a different story about water. I actually told you this story years ago, but it is worth repeating. He was the new pastor of an inner-city, African-American church. His congregants had warned him, a Caucasian man, about working late at night alone, warning him about the bad neighborhood–their neighborhood. He had shrugged off their warnings, but one night he was alone in the church when he heard whistling. His first thought was an intruder, but what kind of intruder would whistle? He worked his way cautiously through the church, his heart pounding, until he finally made his way down to the basement and discovered that the strange whistling was the sound of water moving through the pipes, going to the outdoor faucet. Confused but intrigued, he peered out the window and discovered Marie at the outdoor faucet, filling up plastic jugs of water.
Now, he knew of Marie. She lived across the street. He had tried to speak to her, but she just stared into space. She spent most of her time sitting on her porch, talking to herself, ignoring her small son who wreaked havoc on the entire neighborhood. Then at night, her “clients” would come to visit. She would take the men into her home and lock her son outside like a cat.
And now she was stealing the church’s water. If she had asked, Walt would have given it to her. But she was stealing. He didn’t know what to do. He kept telling himself to let it go. After all, the water cost mere pennies. And if her water had been turned off, her other utilities were probably off, too. And she had a kid who needed to drink and wash and use the bathroom. On the other hand, what was she teaching this child—that you could take whatever you wanted, without asking? Let it go, he told himself. Just let it go.
But then a little while later, he heard it again, the same strange whistling, a figure stooped at the outdoor spigot. Only this time it wasn’t Marie; it was one of her clients.
He knew he had to put a stop to this. The church couldn’t afford to provide water for Marie and all her “johns.” He said he had an image of Grace Lutheran Church, the building itself, rolled over on her side like a helpless sow, while all the people of this neighborhood like wriggling piglets were pushing their snouts into her belly and sucking the poor church dry. Many of his church members were no better off than Marie. He had to stop it but he didn’t want a confrontation with the man, So he had a brilliant idea. He found the pipe that went to the outside spigot, and he turned it off. He was very proud of his solution. He wanted to live in peaceful coexistence with his difficult neighbors, and he had managed to keep the church from getting taken advantage of while not creating an uncomfortable situation.
The next Sunday he told the story in his sermon. After the service, as people greeted him at the door, they said, “Did that really happen, Pastor?” and “That was good thinking, Pastor.” But then came Miz Lil. Miz Lil was the old matriarch of the church, and she always spoke the truth. Whenever she had felt the presence of God, she always said the same thing: “You preached today, Pastor.” That day seemed no different, at first. This is how Walt Wangerin tells the rest of the story:
“You preached today,” Miz Lil said. “God was in this place,” she said, keeping my hand in hers. I almost smiled for pride at the compliment. But Miz Lil said, “God was not smiling.” Neither was she. Nor would she let me go. She paused a while, searching my face. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I dropped my eyes. “God was in your preaching,” she whispered. “Did you hear him, Pastor? It was powerful. Powerful. You preach a mightier stroke than you know. Oh, God was bending his black brow upon our little church today, and yesterday, and many a day before. Watching. ‘Cause brother Jesus–he was in that child Marie, begging a drink of water from my pastor.” God was in that child Marie, begging a drink of water.
The way I see it, there are several dangers. The first is the danger of ignoring the need. We have plenty of water. There’s water all around us. Of course everybody has enough water or money or safety or opportunity. Just because we’re doing okay, we assume that anybody who works hard and obeys the law should also be doing fine.
The second danger is thinking ourselves the arbiter of the water. We should be able to decide who gets help and who doesn’t, who is deserving of assistance, whose rights are worth fighting for, and who should try harder to fit in.
The third danger is thinking we’re not thirsty. “Most of us find it difficult, I think, to be on the receiving end of another’s generosity. It seems to go against our sense of pride or self-sufficiency to be vulnerable in ways that would cause others to freely offer us welcome or refuge, harbor or hospitality. Interestingly, we don’t mind paying for such things.” But admit that we, ourselves, are thirsty? Admit that we, ourselves, are struggling or lonely or broken? Maybe we’d rather just be thirsty.
The finally, the fourth danger is thinking a cup of water is enough. We already gave you freedom; you want liberty, too? We already gave you equal rights; you want equal protection now, too? Our world doesn’t need a drop of charity or a dribble of compassion. Our world doesn’t need a cup of mercy. Our world needs a downpour, an outpouring of love. May we be part of the outpouring. May we help to open the floodgates. And may we all get drenched.
 Debra Dean Murphy “Oh, Jesus Christ, Is It You Again?”