40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and 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.”
Water is central to life. Since the beginning of human society, safe drinking water has been essential. The locations of villages, towns, and even our contemporary cities are based, in part, on access to this precious resource. And yet, for some, water remains a scarcity.
Jesus was born into a family that, although it did not have much, at least had access to this most basic human necessity—water. Their access, however, depended upon visiting public wells and drawing water to fill their daily needs.
For those in society who were outcast or vulnerable, this task could be a major undertaking (cf. John 4:4-26). Being cast out from a village could also mean losing access to such public resources. Such vulnerable populations, not so differently to comparable populations today, were thus left to find alternative times and locations for drawing their water, with the potential that the water they found may have been more likely to have been contaminated than that at the public wells.
When Jesus instructed his apostles to go into villages proclaiming and enacting God’s coming Kingdom with no provisions of their own (Matthew 10:5-10) he made them vulnerable. In the larger discourse of Matthew 10, Jesus acknowledges the possibility that these apostles (and by implication those who followed after them) may themselves be cast out of their families or communities and rejected in the places they travel. Their access to basic necessities like food, water, and shelter were far from guaranteed.
Yet, it is precisely in this vulnerability that Jesus celebrates the potential for people in the communities to whom the apostles are sent to offer a sign of welcome: “And 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” (Matthew 10:42).
This calls to mind an apocalyptic scene later in Matthew’s gospel in which the Son of Man acknowledges the righteous people, recalling, among other things, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35). This association of the care for an individual with the care for Jesus himself is in keeping with first century Jewish culture in which welcoming an individual was welcoming the family and community to which that individual belongs.
Scarcity of water continues to be a major concern in our contemporary world, with around 1.2 billion people across the globe lacking access to clean drinking water. Indeed, in light of recent water crises such as that in Flint, Michigan, safe water seems to have become even more a commodity of the rich in our world than it was in Jesus’ day in which the water-rich bath houses were reserved for the rich, while the poor relied on sometimes distant public cisterns and wells.
In both worlds, however, the same basic truth remains: water is central to life. And so, to offer an apostle water was to offer life. It was to acknowledge the basic human dignity and right to life of this other in one’s midst and, by extension, to affirm the life of our Living God.
The Greek word translated as “little ones” in verse 42 often means “children” in other contexts. Here, most interpreters read it to refer to the apostles to whom Jesus’ commission and discourse are directed. Those who see in Matthew 25 an overarching concern for the vulnerable and the poor further interpret “little ones” to refer to such vulnerable populations, including those for whom access to safe drinking water cannot be taken for granted as a small thing.
As we ponder the welcome that Jesus calls us to extend—and to receive—I believe that each of these readings are interdependent upon one another. If we wish to provide a safe and healthy future for our world’s children, if we wish to proclaim and enact God’s Kingdom in the tradition of the apostles, if we wish to serve alongside and care for Jesus, who promises to come to us in those who are vulnerable and underserved, then we must remain committed to protecting the basic rights and the basic dignities of all. We must be willing, even in the midst of gross injustice, to start small: to offer a cup of cold water, to affirm the right of all God’s children to life. And life abundant.
Water is a right, not a privilege. It is not something won for right belief or fortunate circumstances of birth, but rather a gift of sustenance and refreshment that comes from our Living God.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.