A cup of cold water

RCL Year A, Proper 8

A few years back I ran the Boston marathon on a record hot day. It was in the 80s and humid, unusual weather for mid-April – no one had been doing their training in that kind of heat, so everyone was suffering and struggling through the race, and many dropped out before the end. It was a great day to be a spectator, though, so the course was lined with cheering people, thrilled to be out having a summer-like party day. As we sweated slowly on, more and more people appeared by the side handing out water – not just the official aid stations, but people in front of their houses with extra cups of water, or spraying us down with their garden hoses. I learned for the first time how good it feels to pour a cup of cold water over your head when you’re hot, how fast it cools you down. The official aid stations were great, but it was all that extra water that made a difference for me at least, that day.

‘Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…’ What was the last cup of cold water someone gave to you?

When we talk about discipleship and following Jesus, we often talk about what we do. What kind of discipline we keep in our lives, how we reach out and care for other people, how we work for justice and show compassion to those in need. We don’t tend to talk much about what we receive. But receiving is what Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. He’s talking to his disciples just before he sends them out as apostles to go and spread the good news. It’s kind of a reality check/pep talk – this will be tough, but it’s worth it; your family might hate you but I’ll be with you; go out and preach the gospel. But he winds it up with this bit we hear today, about those who will welcome them. Some will welcome you in my name, he says – some will even give you a cup of cold water, you little ones. Not only will you be doing tough work for others; you will also receive, and others will care for you.

What a relief, after verses and verses of the hard truth, the cost of discipleship. And yet sometimes receiving from others is the hardest thing of all for us.

At the memorial service on Friday for the Bishop’s husband Michael Reeves, one friend talked about how Michael relished taking care of other people. Michael was an avid cyclist, and carried a repair kit for flat bike tires in his car. The friend was with him one day when they spied a bicyclist on the side of the road, struggling to fix a flat. Michael screeched to a stop, jumped out of the car, pulled out his flat repair kit, handed the cyclist some Gatorade, and fixed the flat, all within 5 minutes. The cyclist looked at him in wonder, and said, ‘Who are you??’ Michael said, ‘Just a guy. Don’t pay me – pay it forward!’ and then jumped back in his car and peeled off.

Imagine being that cyclist, stuck with the flat, suddenly sprung upon by this Good Samaritan. Imagine the cup of cold water a stranger hands you, pouring over your head in the hot race. Sometimes you know you need the cup of water being offered to you. But sometimes you might just feel like you should be providing your own water. We take a lot of pride in being prepared and self-sufficient, in doing for ourselves instead of being a burden to others. Carry your own weight – earn your own way. Take enough water and be ready to change your own flat. But that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. You disciples, he says, are the little ones, the least. You’re not the great and powerful, you’re not competent to handle absolutely everything for yourself – and you’re not supposed to be. Receive the welcome given to you – for those who give it to you, it will be a reward, and it is good for you to receive it too.

When is the last time you received a cup of cold water?

There’s a real humility in receiving. To receive help means to acknowledge that you didn’t have it all figured out yourself. It means revealing your vulnerability, your ignorance, your helplessness. None of those are American cultural values, you could say. It’s why it is so hard for us to grow old, or to be ill. When I was pregnant during the New York City summers, it took me a while before I could accept the seat offered on the bus – my first inclination was always to say no, to prove that I was tough and able even despite my obvious condition. But when I finally had to start saying yes, because I really did need to sit down, I was flooded with gratitude to the person who offered the seat – and aware in a whole new way of my need of other people, of my connection to and interdependence with the people around me. Doing it all myself is a good way of isolating and walling others out. Receiving help – just as is offering help – makes tangible our common humanity, our need for each other.

A church community is one real place to receive that kind of care and help. It is a gift that people who don’t go to church simply don’t know about – there are few other communities where this kind of love and care is so readily offered. That love and care was on display in a big way in the memorial service on Friday, in the vast crowds there simply to love and support Bishop Mary and her family in their grief. Bishop Mary, used to leading and guiding all of us in the diocese, was instead cared for by all of us – a shift that must have felt strange to her. But in community love is also there in all kinds of little ways, all kinds of cups of cold water we receive from one another in prayers, in errands run, in help offered on projects or moves or events. Sometimes we know we need to receive it; sometimes it is harder to do so. But it is good and necessary to receive – to be welcomed, to allow ourselves to need. It is part of what ties us together.

The lesson? You don’t have to do it all yourself. In fact, you need not to do it by yourself. Others need to give to you; you need to receive. In doing so we grow, and know more deeply God’s love at work in our midst. May we receive that cup of cold water, know our need for it, drink it, and be grateful. Amen.