A sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Elk River, Minnesota on July 2, 2017
Two images from today’s readings stand out like stoplights, blinking in the night. The first, from today’s Gospel, is simple and short. Jesus says: “Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)
Hmmm… cold water. Cold water saves lives. Think of the millions of people today that yearn for cold, clean water. Think of the millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who are dying because they lack that essential resource. And with an eye on that, let’s take a look at the other image in today’s readings, one of the hardest in the Bible to comprehend.
This story has always troubled me. Here’s Abraham, the man who God said would be the father of many nations, with his son Isaac, the crucial link in the Judeo-Christian story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and the old man takes his beautiful son up in the wilderness and straps him down to a rock. As he is about to kill him, God intervenes in the form of an angel, and stops Abraham from taking that horrible action.
What kind of a God would require such a sacrifice? What kind of father would respond in kind? People get jailed for a lifetime these days for such an action, and they should.
But that’s where we go wrong in interpreting the story. God did not desire or require the death of Isaac. God did not want Abraham to sacrifice his son. Far from it. We know that…or else Isaac would be dead and the Jewish-Christian community would not exist. If Isaac had been eliminated, our story would have gone down as well, for Abraham, Sarah and Isaac are our spiritual forebears, our spiritual ancestors.
God did want Abraham’s obedience. God required Abraham’s obedience. It is as if God was saying, “Trust me with all you have. I will not fail you. Follow me, lean on me, know that I will not abandon you and that I have set you and your descendants here for a purpose.”
That theme of obedience is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Romans today. The wages of sin and giving into your worldly passions is death, says Paul. You’ve been slaves to sin, but in obedience to me you will find life, everlasting life. In obedience to me, you will find living water.
Living water. Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus told the woman by the well, that she could living water were she to recognize him? The woman who had been married five times and was living with a sixth man, not her husband? The woman who had been so humiliated that she went to the well at mid-day to avoid the gossips in town?
Hmmm… water… living water, cold clear water.
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.
In Jesus’ time and in Abraham’s time, giving a cup of cold water wasn’t a matter of walking over to a faucet and turning it on. You had to go to a well, often significantly outside of town. You had to fill a clay jar, either by walking into the well itself or by dropping your jar by a rope into the water or by finding a spring in the desert. You had to keep that water out of the sun. Jesus isn’t talking about warm water here, water that had drawn bugs overnight. He’s talking about cold water in a desert climate.
And that’s the point of today’s Gospel, today’s readings. Jesus is calling us to obedient and radical hospitality. Obedient and radical hospitality. Think of how good that cold water would have tasted to Isaac, tied down to the rock.
Well, we’re all tied down to rocks, aren’t we? Rocks of sin. Rocks of guilt. Rocks of fatigue and physical limitations. Rocks of pain and suffering. Rocks that separate us from each other, make us fear each other. Rocks that make it impossible to forgive. Rocks of passion, of greed, of fear.
Into the midst of that separation from God, that collusion with disobedience that Paul speaks of, and the fear that Abraham must have known as he strapped Isaac to those boulders, along comes Jesus saying those who give another a cup of cold water will receive their reward.
Kindness. Compassion. Welcoming. Stepping across boundaries. Reaching out with the simplest of life-giving gestures to another. Unbinding ourselves from the rocks to which we have been tied down and offering life-giving water. Taking a cup from someone who offers it to you.
What might that cup of water look like in your life? Is there someone you need to forgive? Is there a hungry or thirsty child that lives near you? Is there a way you might help those across the world in the name of God? Is there a way you might help keep water clean here in Elk River so that it might be available for generations to come?
May we, like Abraham in our own desert places, be obedient to God. May we always trust that God has in mind for us life and love and joy and health, not the death of our souls or the death of future generations.
Cups of cold clean water. It’s what Jesus would want.
With thanks to Dr. Rachael Keefe for her inspiring thoughts in the preparation of this sermon.