This might seem to be a near-duplication of last week’s Work, giving food to the hungry. But for the early Christians who remembered the story of Jesus in detail, it had special resonance. This Work of Mercy wasn’t just a matter of getting a drink for a thirsty passerby; there was more involved. Those early Christians remembered the story of Jesus thirsty on the cross – and the cruelty of the soldiers’ offering him sour wine instead of water. They would have understood that this pattern of taunting the outsider in need was something they, too, might soon face. (Remember that Christianity only gained legal recognition three centuries after Jesus’ death.) And they remembered Jesus’ saying that “anyone who gives a glass of water to a disciple because he is a disciple will not lose his reward.” In short, they understood that the command “to give drink to the thirsty” meant this: Care for the needs of outcasts, the people whom others in the majority culture (or those who hold the power) feel free to ignore or even despise. Do the simple, daily acts that erase the (mental or practical) barrier between “us” and “them.”
It would be possible to apply this to the debate over immigration reform that’s going on in our country right now, but that would take us far afield of anything we might actually have the power to influence (and it’s beyond my competence). (If you’re interested in our church’s position on immigration issues the U.S. bishops’ website is the place to start: Google “USCCB immigration.”) Here I want to talk about where the “us/them” divide exists closer to home, where our daily choices can have us do, or ignore, this holy Work.
Start with the school or office: it’s natural for people to gravitate toward friends in time off around these settings, but it’s not uncommon that this leaves others out. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might involve sharing coffee with someone who’s usually not part of the group. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might mean making room at the lunchroom table for the kid who’s usually left to sit alone. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might mean accepting (or offering!) an invitation to share a breakfast or a lunch with an estranged family member. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might be stopping by the home of an elderly neighbor for a chat and tea. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might mean letting the developmentally- or physically-disabled person join in the group instead of being left alone…
It’s an issue in churches too, and our parish is no exception. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might mean looking around down in Shanahan Hall at an after-Mass breakfast to see who’s sitting alone, and choosing to sit with him or her. “Giving drink to the thirsty” might mean welcoming the young parents with a fussy baby who sits behind you in church instead of glaring at them. In a metaphorical sense, “giving drink to the thirsty” might mean offering encouragement, a kind word or a thank-you to some helper around church you tend not to notice – an usher, someone picking up litter in a pew, a server… You get the idea.
Although the barrier-breaking aspect of this Work of Mercy is central, we shouldn’t lose sight of the other, simpler message about thirst and water. Even if we don’t know the numbers, we have a sense that many people in our world lack access to clean water and have to carry it each day from some distance in order to drink, cook, or wash. We can help them practically through charities that can bring a clean water supply to a village for a few hundred dollars. And we can become, ourselves, more aware of the casual way we use and abuse water just because for us it’s so taken-for-granted. It’s no stretch to think that this Work of Mercy urges us to conserve water in our homes; to avoid polluting the aquifer on which Long Island sits and from which wells draw our water; and to support projects to repair and upgrade our public water supply and drainage systems so we don’t, as a local community, waste or pollute.
Our church is full of water-symbolism: from our baptismal wetting to the sprinkling of water on our casket at our funeral, through all the blessings with holy water as we enter church each week: we hear the church say in symbols that water gives life. This Work of Mercy takes water out of the church into the home and workplace and streets, and encourages us to give life to others in Christ’s name. Until next week, peace.