A Cup of Cold Water

Matthew 10:40-42

It is a family memory that always makes me smile, although it came to be ours in the midst of an excruciatingly difficult time.

My dad was in intensive care. His condition was precarious and we were understandably worried about him. Two of my sisters, my then one-year-old nephew, our mother, and I were hovering outside his room. He was sleeping, however, and we did not want to disturb him. Since there was no waiting room near by, we walked down the hall and went into the surgical waiting room to sit and visit and rest and wait. The volunteer in the pink smock welcomed us with a big smile. There was only one other family in there and so we got a lot of attention. She invited us to sit down, offered coffee and doughnuts and found a toy for little Andrew to play with. We were thankful for the kindness — for the ‘cup of cold water’ — if you will, and we sank gratefully into a sofa and chairs. After a while I headed down the hall to make a phone call, using the pay phone on the wall. (Remember, this was more than twenty years ago!) During my absence, this kind volunteer struck up a conversation with my sister, Sarah, asking her who we had in surgery. “Oh, no one,” Sarah replied. “My dad is in ICU.” Well, the volunteer in the pink smock froze up. Her smile disappeared. She turned her back on our family and went and stood guard by her coffee pot.

For you see, we were not supposed to be there. It was a surgical waiting room, after all, and we had inadvertently eaten the doughnuts and enjoyed the coffee which were intended for someone else. When I returned, I found my sisters leaning against the wall outside the waiting room — trying not to cry they were laughing so hard at our mistake and her reaction. The kind cup of cold water had been snatched away because it was not meant for us.

Now I don’t blame the volunteer in the pink smock. She was only doing her job as she understood it. And while it has been more than twenty years since then, what I experienced the other day was the exact opposite, although the contrast might not necessarily be interpreted in a positive way. For you see, this time I was with a family who had a loved one in ICU. (And yes, it is the same hospital system where my dad was cared for so long ago — although a different, newer building.) One of those I was sitting with went to get herself a cup of coffee from the dispenser there. Only no coffee came out — it only offered hot water that day. So I suggested I’d go down to the surgical waiting room where I knew there is always coffee. Sure enough, when I arrived, I told the staff behind the desk what I was there for and they waved me on, joking that it would cost me. They know me by name, you see. We interact on a regular basis when I come to call on people about to go into surgery. I am ‘one of them.’

  • And, oh, isn’t it somehow easier to extend hospitality to ‘one of ours’ even if the gifts laid out were not meant for them?
  • Aren’t we less quick to make the sort of distinctions which lead to us holding back a much-needed cup of cold water if it is a stranger whose story we do not know or whose story we perhaps don’t even really  care to know, but who desperately needs the gifts we have been given to share?

Only Jesus doesn’t talk today about who is deserving but only about who is in need. He only speaks of one of these ‘little ones’ — presumably, the ‘poor ones’ who are hungry or thirsty or in need. He doesn’t say we even need to know them by name — unlike my friends in the surgical waiting room the other day — but only that we need to know HIS name and to do it for his sake.

Oh, we were not among the truly ‘poor’ more than twenty years ago when we wandered into a waiting room and were offered donuts which were not actually intended for us. At the same time, we were fragile and the initial kindness of a hospital volunteer was so deeply appreciated. And yes, it is so that we live in a world where the lines are all too often clear between those who are somehow ‘worthy’ of a ‘cup of cold water’ and those who are not. Perhaps this is because we live in a time and place where it is perceived that there is not ‘enough’ for everyone who is thirsty, so we had better dole out what we have with care. I, for one, don’t know how we break open this way of thinking except by just behaving as though it is not so. Except by behaving like there is more than enough. And perhaps, in this way, in the end as we find ourselves pouring out cold water on a world of people who are so very thirsty, not only is thirst sated, but perhaps our formerly parched hearts become oases of God’s gifts where there is no limit as to what we are able to share with the world. And wouldn’t that be something?

An example or two:

  • This last week I sat with a group which found itself in a conversation which I have heard repeated more times that I can remember.  “What should we do for the beggar on the street? Is it right to give him money? What should we do to help her?” Only this time, one among us piped up with a story about being with friends in the city not long ago. They came upon one who stopped their group and asked for money. They pooled what they had and gave him enough to help him find a place indoors to sleep that night. She said he literally danced down the street as he made his way towards a good night’s sleep. Only this person’s contribution did not end there. She went on to say that maybe he didn’t use it for housing that night. Maybe he went and spent it on cheap wine. She didn’t care. Either way, she figured he had a good night.  Yes, what she said ran contrary to everything I’ve ever been taught about how to ‘give a cup of cold water’ to those who call the street home. Even so, it was the most refreshing, generous stories I have heard in a long time and it gave me a window into the way Jesus calls us to be today: to give without judgment and without limit because one of God’s own is in need. In Jesus’ name.
  • A while back a young woman showed up in my office. We had met a few weeks before when she stopped on a Sunday morning to ask for gas money. She told me her story again. How she is a student at the local community college, hoping to eventually study bio-chemistry. How she and her 5 year old son were homeless in a nearby city when a relative attacked her. How, as a result, they came to live at the women’s shelter in the community where I live. How they helped her get on her feet. Only that day there was no food left in the house and her SNAP card would not be refilled until the next morning. I had a handful of McDonald’s gift cards in my file drawer and so I gave them to her. Only this was not the cup of cold water in this story. Rather there was this. When she waited to talk to me, she had read one of our flyers about our upcoming Vacation Bible School. She asked me then if it would be possible for her son to attend. Now registration has been essentially ‘closed’ for a couple of weeks. There is only so much bus space and so many adult volunteers to oversee the children as they trek to a local camp for four day sin June. Even so, I stepped into the next office and asked our staff member who is in charge what she could do. She didn’t hesitate. She got out her class lists and in a matter of minute figured out how to fit one more five year old into a group. She knows the ‘limits’ far better than I do, but she didn’t hesitate to serve up a cup of cold water for a young mom whose son wants to go to camp this year. Again, in Jesus’ name.

I don’t know how else we learn to pour the water except by doing it. And in doing it in the face of perceived scarcity or fear or even our own best judgment, perhaps it is more and more so that we find ourselves doing it in Jesus’ name. What do you think?

  • And so I wonder now how cold water is poured where you live and serve?
  • Who are the thirsty for whom you are called to pour a cup of cold water?
  • Where have you seen examples of people doing just this, in Jesus name?
  • Have you found it to be so that in simply doing so our own parched hearts are watered too? And what kind of difference does that make? For you? For us? For all this thirsty world?


  1. Judy Bergeson says:

    Yes Yes Yes!!! That’s what I hear echoed throughout your stories, Pr. Janet, except for the first one of course! SOOO glad to hear about the woman and her friends who gave a “good night” to someone in need. Heartening. And clearly, heartfelt.
    Thank you!

  2. I was struck by a story in ‘Lest Innocent Blood be Shed’ – the setting is a village in occupied France, Le Chambeau, that sheltered Jews. There was a raid (a phone call had warned the village, and all but one of the Jews had been hidden in time) that captured one person. The pastor’s son approached the bus where he was held, and offered his ration of chocolate (a rationed item). The ‘cup of cold water’ was a risk of association, of being arrested along with that person.

    If the little ones are disciples, the cup of cold water is a decision to be identified with them – to receive the reward of willing to be associated with ‘those people’ – and to take that risk as a gift as well.

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