A religion that practices baptism is a religion that doesn’t have very rigorous membership requirements. No Herculean feats are necessary to prove your mettle. There is no ritual bath in bull’s blood, no gashing yourself with knives or holding your hand over an open flame to attest to your commitment.

No proof is necessary beyond your word that you mean to try to be a good Christian. 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 untll you are ready to claim the faith for your own when you reach the age of reason. The baptismal water runs off your velvety newborn 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. Three-quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by the stuff that first mediates the sacramental grace of God to us. Most of the human body is made of it. It’s Adam’s ale, the most common thing in the world — like grace.

Some folks 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 the same as calling it “cheap” or “boring” or “unimportant.”

Not so. 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. People are constantly falling in love. And it is exquisite every time, a little gleam of heaven.

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. Consider: The sheep in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats are marked by the fact that they gave Jesus something to drink. 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. When a man mows the grass and his wife gives him a glass of water, we do not customarily rejoice that salvation has visited that 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. But it turns out that scene is from Ben Hur, not Scripture. 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 forced marches of parched criminals to whom he could dramatically give drink?

Perhaps such things 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 — “For I was thirsty, and you gave me drink” — 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 not 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, either then or today. As charities such as Global Water attest, there is much to be done to assure that people in the developing world have a source of clean, safe water to drink. Likewise, as initiatives like the Nestlé 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 by using 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 making me richer!”

That said, it’s still worth asking how the command to give drink to the thirsty might have been understood by Jesus’ hearers. Charities such as Global Water and corporations such as Nestlé did not exist when Jesus spoke. Those who heard him were not thinking about the problem of dysentery in Sudanese water supplies a thousand miles from their village in Galilee.

So while we do 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 early Christians thought about thirst — and especially the thirst of “the least of these, my brethren” –– there was one thing they could readily connect these sayings to:

After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth (John 19:28–29).

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 wretched race gave him vinegar. And his followers got much the same treatment: crucified, stoned, cut to ribbons and roasted alive on spits. The torments we devised for the least of his brethren goes on and on.

In this light, the cup of cold water comes back into focus as a humble and sharp rebuke to human cruelty and selfishness. So small an act as this is impossible for the fallen human creature in the grip of "Christ hatred." Indeed, it can, under the right conditions of mob mood, even mark you as “the wrong sort”: a sympathizer and fellow traveler who deserves the same fate as did Jesus.

Just as Peter could imagine the hot breath of condemnation on his neck for the crime of having an accent similar to his (see Mark 14:70), so even the smallest act of perceived connection to Jesus can cost you your neck when the world is in the mood to persecute.

However, such is the divine generosity that even this small act of charity to his saints can be what carries us into God’s light when the final reckoning comes. That is, I suspect, the meaning of this passage:

He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple: Truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40–42).

To give drink to the thirsty in this context is to give drink to Christ himself, panting in desperation in the person of some helpless soul chased by a mob or harried into hiding by a pogrom. To be kind to a disciple fleeing persecution or to take in an apostle as a guest was, indeed, to give food and drink to Christ, as the Philippian jailer discovered when he welcomed Paul and Silas (see Acts 16:16–40).

But above all, to give drink to the thirsty would in the mind of the early Church most certainly have been connected with the gift of living water. Preaching the Gospel in Rome or most of the urbanized areas subject to Caesar, in the shadow of the aqueducts, one would have been hard-pressed to find bodies dying of thirst. But one could find a plentiful supply of souls hungering and thirsting after righteousness.

To them the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats would have been inevitably joined to the story of the Samaritan woman:

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:7–14).

To give drink to the thirsty is now, as it was then, a supreme work of mercy, in that it involves giving the living water of the Spirit to those who cry out for him. To be sure, the bodily needs of the thirsty must be met. But because human beings are not brute beasts, they need more than this. They suffer from a thirst that no earthly water can satisfy. Indeed, as many an addict will tell you, it is a thirst that men have destroyed their lives seeking to quench with mortal elixirs promising life and delivering 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 Jesus can give us that water. And, in the end, it is only by this common yet miraculous drink that we can fully and truly give drink to the thirsty.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.

Previous parts in the series on the corporal works of mercy:


Feed the Hungry.