Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
I drink a lot of water. It’s an easy, healthy habit we should all have. You might say I’m an apostle for drinking water. I also drink coffee, and I meet people for coffee, a lot. When I pick up my coffee at the counter, I always get myself a glass of water and I always get one for whomever I’m sitting with. I say: “I consider it part of my ministry to help everyone get their eight glasses a day.” Some of you have heard me say this.
I cannot hear today’s Gospel without thinking about Wall Drug. If you’ve ever driven across the country along Route 90, you know about Wall Drug. The signs advertising “Free Ice Water” start about two hundred miles away in each direction from Wall, South Dakota. Coming up in 200 miles: free ice water! 175 miles…free ice water…125 miles to go… In 1986, I began a journey from Boston to Portland that ultimately got me here to our wonderful city and this extraordinary parish. I stopped at Wall Drug and found that the place set high on a bluff in the South Dakota prairie had morphed into a huge kitschy tourist attraction, complete with dinosaur replicas, cotton candy and miniature golf.
But it is not the highway signs or Wall Drug itself, which captivates me. It is the story.
The story began in 1931, when Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought a small drugstore in the middle of nowhere, in a tiny town in South Dakota, just off the road not yet called Interstate 90. Business was not good. The Husteads watched car after car after car drive by on the highway, headed for the Pacific Ocean on holiday, or taking kids to college, or moving to the big city. This was back in the day when every drug store sold milk shakes and still no one ever stopped.
One day, Dorothy had an idea. As she looked out into the expanse of clear blue sky and hot, hot dry road as far as she could see, she realized that everyone driving by, no matter who they were or where they were going, surely would enjoy a glass of nice, cold water. Dorothy and her husband put a few signs by the road that said “Free Ice Water.” People stopped. They came in for a cup of water and stayed to buy ice cream or lunch or a pack of cigarettes. A cup of cold water led in unexpected directions. Welcoming is holy work.
In the Ancient Near East, water was a sign of God’s providence and God’s abundance—watercourses in the desert meant renewal and promise. Water was also a symbol of wealth and power. Living close to the nearest cistern, or well, was a sign of privilege. Everyone aspired to have a well in their own back yard. A cup of cold water didn’t just come from running the tap long enough or grabbing ice cubes from a freezer. Cold water given to a passing stranger meant less cold water for the family meal. It, too, was a sign of God’s providence and abundance, a simple yet significant gesture of welcome and hospitality.
Today’s verses from Matthew’s Gospel conclude what is known as Jesus’ “Missionary Discourse,” admonishing disciples and would-be missionaries that they are being sent out like sheep among wolves, sent with no purse or bag, no extra clothing. Last week, if we hadn’t been celebrating Saints Peter & Paul, we would have heard hard sayings about Jesus coming to bring not peace but a sword, and the invitation to carry one’s cross and lose one’s life. It is in this context of the challenges of discipleship that Jesus offers these words of encouragement, which may or may not be reassuring. In essence: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves to proclaim news that will divide families and test your deepest loyalties, but whoever welcomes you will be blessed.
Where are we in this story? Are we being commissioned and sent out? Or are we the prospective hosts? I believe the Good News always calls us to consider ourselves both sent to proclaim God’s mission of healing and reconciliation, and to expand our capacity for welcome and hospitality for all whom God sends.
Our friend St. Benedict said: “Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ.” Again, receiving and welcoming guests is holy and challenging work.
I was not welcoming this week. I was not nice or kind or compassionate with some neighbors seeking hospitality. I know that there are people in this congregation who are nicer than I am and who have something to teach me about being welcoming in the way that scripture calls us to be. And there are those who would have me be firmer and less welcoming than I am with people who come to our holy spaces with no purse, no money, no identification, no meds, no case worker, no housing voucher, no health insurance.
I cannot postulate what Jesus would do or say in the circumstances in which we who inhabit this corner of this block regularly find ourselves. I do know that Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation was about gathering broken and sinful followers and welcoming them into community. All of the gospels (and certainly the Book of Acts) are clear that with community comes interdependence and boundaries. The hard and holy work of welcoming includes gracefully, lovingly letting people understand what it means to be part of a community. None of us does this as lovingly or as gracefully as we would like.
Dorothy and Ted Hustead reached across a barren and vast landscape with a simple gesture of hospitality and welcome, not knowing who would respond to their simple offer. I know nothing about their religious orientation but I think that in some way they pulled back the curtain on the Kingdom of God.
As those sent out to proclaim Good News in all of the ways that we do, and as those called to receive and welcome the “little ones,” we are constantly given opportunities to unveil the Kingdom of God for those who haven’t seen it, through simple but significant expressions of hospitality and community. We do that here in this place and you all do it in your own lives.
As followers of Jesus, or, if prefer, imitators of Christ, we are called to practice, and to receive, God’s extravagant hospitality. Sometimes, that means setting a boundary. Sometimes—no, all the time—God’s extravagant hospitality lies in the words: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” Sometimes—all the time—God’s extravagant hospitality can be found in a seemingly small gesture. A cup of cold water.