We follow Jesus, but sometimes you’ve gotta scratch your head at that fella.
“A cup of cold water in my name?” That sets the bar kind of low, don’t you think? I mean, seriously, Jesus, cold water’s not really all that much to ask of us, is it?
And it does seem that way. One can imagine somebody talking about his latest conversation with a whiny guest who keeps hinting he’s thirsty but won’t come right out and say it or get off his lazy behind and get a glass. He hints and whines until eventually the host stalks into the kitchen, turns on the tap and shoves the glass into his hand and says, “Jesus! Here’s some water!” Some folks might get the impression they’ve covered their bases by saying that and let Jesus know they’ll see him later on when he’s needed.
Of course, when we remember that Jesus was talking in the first century instead of the twenty-first, then we might start understanding how this was a tougher task then than it is for us. No refrigerators, no coolers, no cold faucets. It does sometimes get cold in Judea, and in the mountain ranges it even snows. But cold water with the twist of a wrist is not really an option for a lot of people.
Water that came from wells was usually cooler than water people had sitting around – but nothing like what we might think of as cold. In any event, wells were rarely the kind we often call to mind with the brick cylinder and the bucket on a rope. Many of the wells were like the one where Jesus met the woman from Samaria – a large pit that you walked down into with your bucket and climbed out of after you’d drawn water from the spring at the bottom.
That water was cool compared to the air around you, but it didn’t stay cool for long. People might dig a cellar in which they could store some water and cool it down a little, but they didn’t keep a lot down there, unless it was a big cellar. And few people could afford that kind of work.
So offering someone a cup of cold water took some work. It wasn’t the hardest job a first-century Middle Easterner could have, but it was nowhere near the incredibly easy snap it is for us today. And even so, Jesus talks about it in a way that indicates it’s not the most someone could have done back then, too. “Even a cup of cold water," he says.
Here we trip over another culture gap, I believe. The culture of the ancient Middle East had a role for hospitality that we don’t come close to matching. Even today in the rural areas or in small towns in that region, hospitality customs exist that are very much the same as in Jesus’ day.
If I lived in a village and I happened to have a conversation with you or meet you on the street, and I learned that you had no place to stay or you were traveling, I would invite you to my house for a meal. No questions asked. In fact, I would invite you to stay at my house while you were in my village before you took up your journey again. No questions asked.
If I didn’t do these things, I ran the risk of being thought of as a no-account rube who decent people wouldn’t mix with. That’s how strong the custom was. It probably roots in the traditions of these people when they were still nomads and wanderers. In the desert, refusing your hospitality to a traveler might very well mean that traveler’s death. There might not be anyone else to put him up or any oases nearby.
In that culture, an invitation to my house made you a part of my extended family, like we might think of a second or third cousin today. We don’t put them in the will, mind you, but we make sure they’re invited to the barbecues.
That cup of cold water is part of an invitation to join the family – and we know who our family is if we say we’re part of the body of Christ, don’t we? When we invite the stranger to put their knees under our table and we do so as disciples of Jesus, then aren’t we inviting them to gather with us at God’s table? And if we’re doing that, then aren’t we inviting them to share in the meal God offers us, the communion that Jesus shared with his disciples and directs us to share with each other?
So maybe our cup of cold water is not such a low bar after all. Maybe it’s a hint that our true reward as a member of the household of faith comes when we in turn invite others, as we were invited ourselves.
Our reward may come to us when we ourselves share the good news.