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"God's Travel Guide"

The image of a cup of cool water offered to a stranger symbolizes our responsibility to offer Christian hospitality.


Father Daniel Berrigan shares these ancient Welsh laws of hospitality:

  • “Three things which, according to politeness, should be prepared for guests: a kind and affectionate reception, a ready and handsome provision and a friendly conversation.”

  • “Three things which, according to politeness, should not be asked of a guest: where he came from, his worldly condition, and the place of his destination.”1

Hospitality is among the most ancient of human traditions. On the most basic level, it’s about providing the essentials of life for another person, especially another person who’s on a journey. Food, water and a roof over the head: the essentials.

But it’s about more than that. The offering of hospitality brings two people, guest and host, closer. They make a connection.

Many of us contribute to charitable causes, especially those that aid the needy. As we sign the check or click “enter” to send a contribution electronically, we feel we’ve done our part to ease some of the world’s woes.

But that’s not the same as what Jesus recommends in Matthew 10, verse 42: “... 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.”

Jesus is advocating a true hands-on mission experience. Don’t just send money, keeping the needy at arms’ length, he’s saying. Get right in there and help God’s suffering children with your own two hands. “... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones ....”

Just a cup of water: how ordinary! But a cup of cold water handed over personally to a person who’s thirsting for it: that’s extraordinary!

That little teaching of Jesus wraps up chapter 10, which is wholly devoted to his parting instructions to his disciples before they go on a holy walkabout — preaching the Word, healing the sick, casting out demons and generally trying to convince everyone they meet that both the love and the judgment of God are a lot closer than they think.

In the earlier verses in chapter 10, Jesus gives his dear friends some parting instructions:

  • Preach and teach and heal with boldness.

  • If the people in one village want nothing to do with you, don’t waste your time there, move on to the next.

  • Travel light.

  • Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

  • Don’t worry about what you’re going to say; trust God to give you the right words, in the nick of time — it will happen.

  • When things get bad, and they will — people may even hate you, even your own relatives may hate you — remember they can kill the body, but not the soul. (Now, isn’t that encouraging?)

  • “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

With these and similar words of wisdom, Jesus equips his disciples for their bold, risky and momentous journeys — advance emissaries for the coming reign of God.

The actor Peter Falk was famed for his role on TV as Detective Lieutenant Columbo. Columbo’s schtick was to fumble around in his rumpled raincoat and battered shoes, looking like the most incompetent detective in history. The murderer would relax — “I’ve got nothing to fear from this fool!” — but then, as Colombo was leaving the room, he would always turn around and say, “Just one more thing ....”

It was then that he would drop the critical question, the insignificant-sounding afterthought that sprung the trap. The steely logic behind the question would catch the perpetrators unawares, and they would stumble into a contradiction that would incriminate them.

At the end of Jesus’ long list of parting instructions, it’s as though he turns to go away, then stops. The “one more thing” he says is no logical trap. It’s a vital word of instruction: don’t shrink from offering a cup of cold water to “these little ones.”

Well, who are “these little ones”?

They’re the very disciples he’s sending out. His instruction here is not for the disciples he’s sending out but for the crowd. And it’s not just for them, but for the whole population of Judea. He’s been telling the disciples what a tough world it is out there, that they’re going to be spurned and rejected in some villages, but that in others they will receive wonderful, spirit-lifting hospitality.

They’ll never know, as they enter the next village, what’s in store for them. They’ve just got to go there and find out, trusting God every step of the way.

But then Jesus gives the larger population fair warning, that he expects something of them as well:

  • If you welcome me, you welcome God who sent me.

  • If you welcome a prophet, you receive the prophet’s reward.

  • If you welcome a righteous person, you receive the same reward righteous people receive.

Then, he adds, “... 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.”

There’s a hierarchy here. If this were the army, Jesus would be saying, “Whoever welcomes a general, gets a general’s pay. Whoever welcomes a colonel, gets a colonel’s pay. Whoever welcomes a captain, gets a captain’s pay. And as for these buck privates I’m sending out, if you so much as hand them a cup of coffee and a donut from the USO cart, you too are on my list of those who have supported this gospel army — and believe me, I will remember that little kindness, just as I remember the grand gestures, when it comes time for the final reckoning!

A cup of cold water seems like such a little thing. But it’s not. Cold water was a rarity in Jesus’ culture. He didn’t have to add that word. He could have just said “a cup of water.” But he said, “a cup of cold water.”

Well, what’s the big deal about that? Most of us can get cold water whenever we want it. At home, it’s as easy as taking ice cubes from the refrigerator. At work or school, we’ve got refrigerated water fountains and water coolers everywhere. Sit down in a restaurant, and a glass of cold water seemingly just appears. It’s the one beverage you don’t have to pay for — and, usually, don’t even have to ask for.

Yet, Bible times aren’t our times. Getting a cup of cold water in Jesus’ day was not such an easy thing.

Running water had not been invented. Nor had refrigeration. A household’s water supply came from the village well. It started out cool in the early morning when someone — usually one of the women or girls — walked down there with a clay jar, filled it, and came struggling back with it balanced on her head. She would place the water jar in a shady space inside the house — but even so, as the hours went by, it lost that cool, crisp, fresh-from-the-well taste. By late in the afternoon, the time most thirsty dinner guests were likely to arrive, you were lucky if room-temperature water was what you had left. At that time of day, a room in a first-century Palestinian house — with its thick walls that delayed temperature changes but couldn’t stop them — was just about at its hottest.

If someone brings a cup of cold water to one of “these little ones” — Jesus’ disciples, whom he’s sending out to do God’s extraordinary work in ordinary ways — it means she got up, ran to the well, and came back with fresh, cool water. A special trip, a special effort, for a special person.

That’s what the best hospitality is all about: making that extra effort, going that extra mile to make it just right. It’s the act of kindness you didn’t have to do — nobody expected it — but you did, anyway.

There’s an ethic, here, of reciprocity. The disciples are going out to share the greatest gift in the world, the good news of salvation. They will offer that gift for free. Some will spurn them, throwing it back in their faces. Others will accept it, but let it drop as soon as they move on — like those handbills you accept from somebody on a city sidewalk or at the mall. Some will say, “Okay, here’s a drink from the old clay water jar, if you still want it, this time of day.” But then, occasionally, someone will say, “Here, this is for you: a cup of cold water. I fetched it from the well myself.”

So many gifts in this world are given according to the ordinary calculus of human values, which is merely a positive restatement of the ancient criminal code, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” You take care of me; I take care of you. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You do something that’s deserving, and you get what you deserve. You’ve done the work; you’re entitled to be paid. A cup of ordinary water from the household jar: it’s all anyone’s entitled to.

In our society, it sometimes seems that entitlement is going to be the death of us. Listen to the political debate these days: that’s about all you hear. Whether it’s public-employee benefits at the state capital, corporate welfare, subsidies, Medicare benefits in Washington or whether some failed nation deserves to be bailed out of its monetary crisis, it’s all about entitlement.

“Okay, Mr. Panhandler, if you’re thirsty, I’ve got this half-empty bottle of water here. I’ve been drinking from it all day, but it’s still good. It’s just a little warm because it’s been in the car. Don’t worry about those crumbs floating in it. They won’t hurt you. They’re from my sandwich at lunch. Oh, and have a nice day!”

Are you starting to realize that cups of cold water aren’t so common today as you may think? They just may be as rare now as they were in Jesus’ time.

Elderly or disabled people, single-parent families, those who’ve looked diligently for work, but have been unable to find any — do they deserve a roof over their heads? What about the alcoholic? Or the able-bodied person who’s clinically depressed? Or the working couple who could just about make it, but they’re both addicted to cigarettes, and the cost of tobacco puts them on a downward spiral, financially and health-wise?

These are messy situations. But poverty is always messy. The politicians continue to try to boil these complexities down into sound bites, to debate what, if anything, to do about such problems, but we know the answer.

We know it because we’re Christians. The answer is: a cup of cold water. Not just any water. Cold water. A gift nobody deserves. Because it’s grace, nothing but grace. And it’s free. Always has been. Always will be. We received without price. Now, we give without pay.

Just one more thing (as Lieutenant Columbo would say). Those who have gone on church mission trips may sometimes have an unexpected experience of role reversal. A group of volunteers may be laboring in the stifling midday heat — unloading shingles or spackling a wall or hauling a sack of trash to the pick-up truck — when one of the people they’re helping may come up to them and hold out a hand. In that hand will be a little something for them. A gift. A cup of cold water. As that weary laborer from afar takes the cup and looks with unexpected gratitude into the eyes of the host, something will pass between them. A kind of understanding. A meeting of the minds, but even more, of the hearts.

For we are alike in our thirst. We are alike in our need. And the only person who can quench that thirst is the one offers not just ordinary water — but living water forevermore.

1Daniel Berrigan, No Gods But One (Eerdmans, 2009), 91.




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