A religion that practices baptism is a religion that doesn’t have very rigorous membership requirements. No Herculean feats necessary to prove your mettle. You don’t have to hand your darkest secrets over to the Custodian of the Engrams for him to leverage you into keeping the Inner Secrets of the Organization. No proof is necessary beyond your word that you mean to try to be a good Christian. No ritual bath in bull’s blood. No gashing yourself with knives or holding your hand over an open flame to attest your seriousness.
Indeed, there’s none of that “and we mean business!” stuff that any secret organization worth its salt practices. Just a splash of water three times, a few ritual words, and you are good to go! You don’t even need to possess the faculty of consciousness if you happen to be born into a Catholic family: Mom and Dad do that bit for you till you are ready to claim the Faith for your own, which a lot of Catholics never get around to doing. The baptismal water runs off your velvety newborn head (or even your graying ex-Nazi butcher head), and the gift of eternal life is granted by our profligate God. It’s as though Catholics really believe all that stuff about salvation by grace and not by hard work on our part!
In light of this, water is once again seen as a fitting symbol of the grace of God. It’s everywhere. Oceans of it! Three quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by the stuff that first mediates the sacramental grace of God to us. Most of our bodies are made of it. It’s Adam’s Ale, the most common thing in the world — like grace.
Some folks might react to that last sentence as though it were a slam on the grace of God. How dare I call it “common”? But that’s only because some folks think that calling something common is calling it “cheap” or “boring” or “unimportant.”
None of that is true. All the most important things in the world are common. Breathing, for instance. You don’t think about it while you exercise the privilege; but let somebody interrupt it for just a few seconds, and your appreciation for it shows a marked uptick. Love is common. It happens every day. People are constantly falling in love. And when it happens, it is exquisite every time: a little shadow of participation in the life of God Himself. Birth is common — and every birth is a miracle. Death is common — and every death is a tiny Golgotha in which another human being is joined to the sufferings of the Son of God and His Blessed Mother.
The commonness of water is like those common — and precious — things. Jesus tells us that the Sheep in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats are marked by, among other things, the fact that they will be commended because they gave Him something to drink.
And yet, that doesn’t seem very . . . reward-worthy. It’s not exactly up there with slaying the Hydra or battling an army grown from dragon’s teeth or cleaning the Augean Stables. When we go to a restaurant and a waiter gives us our customary glass of ice water, we do not break forth in alleluias. After we mow the grass and our wife gives us a glass of water, we do not customarily rejoice that salvation has visited this house. Yet Jesus chooses this image as a sign of our worthiness for Heaven. What gives?
At this point, it is often customary for the imagination to wander to scenes we are sure we recall from the Bible somewhere, like that time Jesus gave a drink of water to the desperately parched Charlton Heston in 1 Wyler 10:42. But it turns out that scene isn’t from a biblical book. It’s from Ben Hur, one of the great biblical epics of the 1950s where Jesus appears as a bit player whose back is always to us and whose face always manages to cow and overawe grizzled Roman soldiers. In scenes like that, we can certainly see how giving somebody a cup of cold water might be commendable as an act of mercy.
But how often do we have occasion to meet desperately thirsty chain gangs full of innocents, much less have an artesian well nearby when we do? Indeed, if it comes to that, how often, even in Jesus’ day, was the average person confronted with stampeding herds of desperately thirsty chain-gang members to whom he could dramatically give drink? Perhaps such occasions happened with a little more frequency under the Roman boot than in Suburban America. But as a rule, it was not common. So this leaves us somewhat at a loss as to how to implement this teaching in our life, as well as with a puzzle about how such a saying would have been understood by Jesus’ disciples. Desperate thirst, while it certainly could occur in a world without indoor plumbing and at the mercy of drought, was just not all that normal an occurrence.
This is not, by the way, to say that there’s no problem with the water supply in human habitats the world over today. As charities like Global Water attest, there is much to be done to assure that people in the Third World have a source of clean, safe water to drink. My point is not that we can blow off the need to give drink to the thirsty, nor to say that because we in America are blessed with modern water technologies we can henceforth ignore this corporal work of mercy. As things like the Nestle Boycott attest, the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is still being played out today, only the Rich Man is now busy profiteering off the thirst of Lazarus by telling his mother, “Don’t feed your boy with that low-tech breast milk! Instead, line our pockets with this snazzy new formula that you mix with contaminated water! Sure, your kid will be between six and 25 times more likely to die of diarrhea and four times more likely to die of pneumonia than a breastfed child, but that’s a small price to pay for supporting First World capitalism in the Third World!”
But that said, it’s still worth asking how the command to give drink to the thirsty might have been understood by Jesus’ hearers. Charities like Global Water and EvilCorps like Nestle did not exist when Jesus spoke. Those men and women who heard Him were not thinking about the problem of dysentery in Sudanese water supplies a thousand miles away from their village in Galilee. So while we do very well to consider such matters and do our part to help ensure that an African mother is not bamboozled into killing her child by corporate hucksters eager to make a buck, we also need to consider what this passage may have meant to those who first read it.
It is worth noting that when the disciples thought about thirst — and especially the thirst a man could feel as “the least of these my brethren” — there was one thing they could readily connect these sayings to:
Jesus had thirsted. He had thirsted physically on the cross — an intense burning thirst brought on by massive loss of body fluids following His scourging. When He begged for drink, our race gave Him vinegar to drink. And His followers got much the same treatment: crucified, stoned, cut to ribbons, roasted alive on spits — the torments we devised for the least of His brethren just goes on and on.
In this light, the cup of cold water suddenly comes back into focus as the humble and sharp rebuke to human cruelty and selfishness that it is. So small an act as this is impossible for the fallen human creature in the grip of Christ-hatred. Indeed, it can, in the right conditions of mob violence and hatred, even mark you as “the wrong sort,” a sympathizer, a fellow traveler, one who deserves the same fate. Just as Peter could imagine the hot breath of condemnation on his neck for the crime of having an accent similar to Jesus’ (Mk 14:70), so even the smallest act of perceived similarity to Jesus can cost you your neck when the mood to persecute is on the world. However, such is the divine generosity that even this small an act of charity to His saints may well be what carries us into the Light when the Divine Assizes are reckoned. That is, I suspect, the meaning of this passage:
To give drink to the thirsty here is to give drink to Christ Himself, harried to a hiding place by a pursuing mob, or panting in desperation in a world that is all too ready to crucify Him yet again in the person of some helpless soul who just thought to do what is right. To be kind to a disciple during some pogrom, or to take in an apostle as a guest, was, indeed, sometimes to give literal physical food and drink (as the Philippian Jailer discovered when he welcomed Paul and Silas).
But above all, for the early Church, to give drink to the thirsty would most certainly have been connected in their minds with the gift of living water. Preaching the gospel in Rome, or most of the urbanized areas subject to Caesar, one would have been hard-pressed to find bodies dying of thirst in the shadow of the aqueducts. But one could find a plentiful supply of souls hungering and thirsting after righteousness. To them, the words of Christ in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats would have been inevitably joined to the story of Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman:
To give drink to the thirsty is now, as it was then, a work of mercy supremely in that it involves giving the mercy of God in the person of the Holy Spirit to those who cry out for Him. To be sure, the bodily needs of the thirsty must be met. But after the lowest level of Maslow’s Pyramid is built, human beings — not being brute beasts — go on needing more than this. They suffer from a thirst that no earthly water can satisfy. Indeed, as many an alcoholic and addict will tell you, we suffer from a thirst that men have destroyed their lives seeking to quench with mortal elixirs that promise life and give only death. That is why the water at Jacob’s well — and indeed all the water in the world — could not slake the Samaritan Woman’s thirst. Only the Spirit could give us the water that quenches our thirst. And, in the end, it is only by this common-yet-miraculous drink that we can fully and truly give drink to the thirsty.