Cold Water

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Cold Water” Matthew 10:40-42

“That’s some good ice tea.”  It was James, in his polyester sport coat, pointy collared shirt, and freshly shined spats.  James fancied himself to be the heir apparent to James Brown.  Every so often during our Wednesday evening gatherings at the New York Avenue church, James would break into song and share his funkiest moves, feet shuffling almost too fast to be seen, body spinning then dropping into a split before popping back up, like magic. 

James had offered his appreciation for the tea in the general direction of the tea makers, Connie and me.  I was filling cups with the sweet, lemony tea, while Connie was perched on a chair, working on her latest crochet creation. The week before, I had cleaned out my yarn stash and brought Connie a big bag of odds and ends and never completed projects. If James thought he could compete with that for Connie’s attention, he had another think coming. 

“Hey,” James ventured again, “Hey, Connie! I said that’s some good ice tea.” But Connie only rolled her eyes as if to say, “He’s crazy.”  And he was.  In fact, everyone was, in one way or another, both the guests and the hosts at the 729 Club where I volunteered. 

“Connie!” I chided.  She gave me a baleful look and put down her crochet hook. 

“You are welcome, James,” she smiled as sugary sweet as the tea.  That made James so happy that he did a little spin and bow, every bit as deft and debonair as the Godfather of Soul himself.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…”

“I’d like some of that brown stuff,” it was a softly spoken request.  I turned away from the sink where I had been washing dishes and peered into the dim light behind me.  I spied him near the open back door, swaying a little bit, looking like he was about to bolt off into the dark.  I was on the reservation for my cross-cultural quarter of seminary studies.  My host was Sally Big Bear, a local spiritual leader, and this was her youngest brother, Habob.  I’d seen him around the edges of things but had never heard him speak.  Like many of the young adults on Rosebud, he struggled with addiction.

“I’d like some of that brown stuff,” Habob repeated, no eye contact, but his body language told me he was talking about the sheet cakes that rested on the kitchen counter.  Earlier, after dinner, Sally had parceled out pieces of cake to the large extended family that had come for the meal – sons and daughters, children, grandchildren, aunties, uncles, neighbors, and even seminarians. 

“Brown stuff?” I puzzled, looking at the crumby remnants, and picking up a knife.  “Chocolate?”

Habob’s brow furrowed, “No, not chocolate. The brown stuff?” He asked again, hopeful. 

That’s when I saw it, more beige than brown, crowned with a frothy brown sugar and coconut icing.  “Ah!  Spice cake!”  I cut a large slab, balanced it on a paper plate and shrouded it in a cocoon of saran wrap.  “For you!” I said, holding it out with two hands, and Habob received it with the same sort of reverence that a child reserves for a favorite toy or stuffed animal. 

“Hmmm. Brown stuff!  Thanks!” he mumbled before slipping out into the South Dakota darkness with his treasure.

About three o’clock the next day we heard news that too many families get on the reservation.  Habob had been found dead in the abandoned house where he lived with other addicts.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones….”

“Lady, can you help my dog?” It was Johnny Wayne, the seven-year-old grandson of Mr. Robert.  So far, Johnny Wayne had impressed us with his ability to cuss and cheat in bike races.  I was in eastern Kentucky with my Youth Group.  We were putting a new foundation under the back of Mr. Robert’s house. I’d spent most of the afternoon digging a ditch to lay drain tile to divert the water that would pour off Robert’s roof and under his home.  Now, I was drinking cold water, as much as I could get, and sitting on the front porch taking a break. 

“Lady, can you help my dog?” Johnny Wayne wanted to know.  She was a big red pit bull mix with a saggy belly that told me she had had more than one litter of pups. 

“What’s wrong?” I ventured warily. 

“She’s got ticks.”  Johnny Wayne wasn’t kidding.  From ears to tail, Rosie was littered with ticks, more than I had ever seen, little and big, making a meal of her. 

I confess that ticks repulse me.  They’re like little insect vampires, dropping from trees or jumping out of the grass to make our lives miserable.  And while I am a dog lover, I try to steer clear of anything that looks remotely like a pit bull.  My reluctance must have been written all over my face as I said, “Wow.  I’m not sure what you want me to do about that, Johnny Wayne.” 

The little boy tried again.  “C’mon, please!  Help her.  How would you like to be covered in ticks?”

I wouldn’t, and that’s when I realized that Johnny Wayne was good not only at swearing and cheating but also at getting grown-ups to do what he needed them to do. 

“Ok.” I relented and spent the next thirty minutes picking ticks off Rosie.  She rolled right over, as if she had known me all her life, while Johnny Wayne told me stories of all the good things that he was going to do with his father when he got out of prison.

“And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones….”

There was a big cardboard box, right on the stoop, blocking my way to the front door when I got home from work.  I’d had the “brilliant” idea to leave a well-paying job back east and test the waters of a career change by serving as a VISTA, Volunteer in Service to America.  Now, I was a volunteer coordinator and health educator, working out of the Jackson County, Oregon, Health Department.  That meant I spent all my time touting the benefits of WIC and the Oregon Health Plan while trying to convince women to get prenatal care and immunize their children, all for a princely monthly stipend of $600, which did not go far in a community where just renting a room cost about $350.  I ate a lot of rice and beans that year.

Taped to the top of the cardboard box was a note written in easily recognizable, large wobbly letters, “For Joann.”  The handwriting belonged to Ivan, a Vietnam vet who suffered from PTSD.  I’m not really sure how I had met Ivan.  He belonged to the Seventh Day Adventist Church in town, and sometimes he would join me on Sunday afternoons for hikes up in the mountains or drives down to the coast, activities which he felt a young woman should not be doing on her own. 

A box from Ivan could hold a lot of things – tracts touting the benefits of being an Adventist, pumice stones that he picked up along the banks of the Rogue River, or maybe some great thrift store find, like a Rubik’s Cube or a jigsaw puzzle, missing a few pieces.  But this night, when I dragged the box inside and popped it open, I found that it was full of vegetables.  There were cucumbers and tomatoes, big leafy collard greens, onions, and zucchini squash big enough to double for baseball bats.  Move over beans and rice, I had just hit the fresh produce jackpot!

When I called Ivan later to thank him for his kindness, I learned that he had grown the vegetables in a little garden plot that he had down at the Adventist church.  I could just picture him that summer, patiently pulling weeds, watering, and harvesting.  It was without question one of the kindest things that anyone had ever done for me.  But why me? I wanted to know. Ivan’s answer was heartwarming and humbling all at the same time, “Joann, the Lord would want me to do something good for you.”

“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.”

Jesus taught his followers about the importance of simple acts of kindness that we can share in the course of our everyday living.  When Jesus sent his disciples out on their gospel mission, he knew that they would depend upon the kindness of strangers.  Jesus also taught that when we extend hospitality to our vulnerable neighbors, the little ones of our world, we are really caring for him.  Hospitality, given and received, grants us a foretaste of the world that God would have us forge.  It’s a kingdom where all are welcomed, loved, and cared for.  It’s a world where James will spin Connie around the dance floor, and Habob will tuck into a second slice of spice cake.  Johnny Wayne will play ball with his Daddy, Rosie will be free from ticks, and the tables of the poor will abound with fresh-picked produce.  I want to be a part of that world.  How about you?

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever 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, 42 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.”

Photo by Sohel Patel on

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