And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.
I used to toss that verse around a lot when I was director of a United Methodist urban mission. That one, and the passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus tells the people who didn’t clothe the naked, feed the hungry or visit the sick or imprisoned that he would eventually tell them to depart from Him, for He never knew them. That passage speaks of giving a drink to the thirsty as well. Of course, as director of that mission and the one primarily responsible for fundraising, it wasn’t really drinks of cold water I was after. Food, yes. Diapers and clothes, we needed those, too. Furniture and household items were always in short supply. And cash donations were best of all. There was not (I hope, I pray) an intention to use those scriptures to be manipulative. The people we served really were in desperate straights, and I really do believe God intends for and instructs us to help those in need. But the poor I served in the United States didn’t need a cup of water. They may not have had much else, but they could find water.
And then I went to Thailand. I had the opportunity last summer to serve for ten days with a Kentucky Conference Volunteers in Mission team working alongside Mike and Sherri Morrisey of Thailand Methodist Mission. Images of the beautiful Thai people served by Mike and Sherri and their colleagues remain etched on my heart. The prostitutes—so many prostitutes—they were close enough to reach out and touch. There were hundreds of them as we walked through the main red light district in Pattaya. Many of them, we were told, were trafficked from foreign countries, trapped in a land where they do not know the language and do not know who is safe to turn to should they want to escape. There is a little boy called Beam, who lives in a one-room shack with holes between the slats of his floor. Looking through the holes, I could see the creek below into which all the neighborhoods’ garbage and human waste flow. I met an elderly lady who is raising a 4 year old on almost no income, because the child’s parents left for the city long ago to find work and haven’t been heard from since.
But of all the Thai people, there is one who particularly haunts my thoughts. It was hot the day we visited his rural village near the Cambodian border. So hot, in fact, that we were grateful for the breeze we caught as we rode the “dek dek” through the rural village (picture a rototiller with a hay wagon attached). I don’t know the old gentleman’s name. Our interpreter called him “Grandfather,” a term of respect for the elderly. Grandfather’s shack didn’t have four walls; he makes do with only two. There was no comfy sofa to rest on; he sat on a rough hewn wooden table. There was no fridge and nothing on which to cook a meal. He spared no pretense as he answered our interpreter’s questions.
“Grandfather, have you eaten today?”
“Yes, today I ate. I eat when my neighbors bring me food.” The neighbors are nearly as destitute as Grandfather. He motioned to a covered pot, and the interpreter lifted the lid to reveal to us a gelatinous lump of congealed rice in a red sauce, obviously not prepared that day.
“How often are you brought food?”
“Every two or three days.”
“And do you have something to drink?”
At this the old gentleman smiled, revealing the few teeth that remained, and pointed to his water pot. There was some water. A few inches. Enough to drown the flies that floated on the surface.
Because of the heat and the danger of dehydration for those of us not accustomed to the climate, we were all carrying bottles of water. None of them were full. None of them were cold, having been carried in sweaty hands for several hours. All carried our germs. We all took a turn looking into the pot, and as one person, without thinking or speaking, we all laid our half drunk bottles of warm water on the man’s wooden pallet. Then, we folded our hands and bowed with the respect Grandfather deserved for merely surviving.
As we trekked back to the main road and to the dek dek after saying our goodbyes, we were all overwhelmed by two thoughts. The first thought was that we would never complain again. This, of course, lasted until we encountered our third long airport line on the way home. The second thought was that our gift was so small, so insignificant, so temporary, it was simply not enough to give this man. This elderly child of God, alone save for neighbors, sitting day after day on his crude table in the sweltering heat. The need was so huge and our offering so small! The thanks we received was so out of proportion to our meager gift.
It’s that gratitude that haunts my thoughts. As we gave the partially filled, lukewarm, germy water to Grandfather, he wept. He folded his hands, bowed to us with gratitude and respect and wept. And over and over he said “Khap Khun Prajow, Khap Khun Prajow.” Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God. Not thank you, you pampered foreigners who never have to wonder where your next drink of water is coming from. Thanks be to God. Thanks to God who provides food from neighbors who have little of their own. Thanks to God who provides drinking water from strangers who may never pass that way again. Thanks to God who provides. Thanks be to God.
The beauty in the gift was not its size, or its significance. It’s not in the fact that all of Grandfather’s needs are now met and problems now solved. They aren’t. I worry about the days when the heat evaporates the water in the jug until it is just flies. Our small gift certainly was not a permanent fix. The beauty in the gift is that on that particular day, God reminded Grandfather that He sees Him. That He cares. That He can use pampered foreigners to bless. And He reminded the foreigners that whoever gives even a cup of cold water in His name surely will not lose their reward. Khap Khun Prajow.
Cyndi Downing is a first-time contributor to the Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Cyndi!
Image attribution: amstockphoto / Thinkstock