“Clunk, clink, clunk, clink, clink… .” The odd sounds heard over the telephone occasioned an understandable question: “What’s that noise?” “What noise?” was the response. “That clunking and clinking,” I explained. “Oh, that’s the ice dispenser on the refrigerator door.” “No need for ice cube trays anymore?” “No, a glass of water and a supply of ice are as handy as the refrigerator door!” “We’ve come a long way since ice boxes, haven’t we?”
My family never really had an ice box. We had a refrigerator with ice trays — not actually a freezer, just a small compartment with a couple of trays for ice cubes. In my youth there in fact was an ice house in the neighborhood. O’Hara’s Ice House was located on Cato Street in Woonsocket. I never actually knew anyone who had ice blocks delivered to their home. Perhaps restaurants or saloons still needed ice blocks in the 1940s. Still, even without ice blocks or ice cubes or ice from the refrigerator door, a cup of cold water is still not very far away from any thirsty person in the Western world. The handy tap at the kitchen sink can still supply a fairly refreshing glass of water.
The ease with which the modern world can refreshingly quench its thirst should be kept in mind when pondering St. Matthew’s classic example of fraternal charity. Consider these words from the evangelist: “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple — amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” The key reference here is “cold” water. When St. Luke relates the same teaching from Christ, he is content merely to write “cup of water.” St. Matthew goes out of his way to insist on a cup of “cold” water. The adjective cold here is most instructive concerning the type and style of charitable works upon which both Christ and St. Matthew insisted.
Ice houses were few and far between in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. More likely they were non-existent. So ice blocks, ice boxes and ice trays were out of the question. But what the ancient world did have and was happily seen in the distance were wells! The well was the icebox of the ancient world. A well signified refreshment. Going to the village well, perhaps waiting in turn for the bucket to be free, and then lowering the bucket into the water lengths below and then winding the rope and bucket back up to street level was quite a chore. And, incidentally, a trip to the well was a chore usually performed by women. People could certainly secure water from the village well and then bring it home and store it in vessels on the back porch where it would be handy for quenching thirst and cooking food and washing dishes. Yet, water left on the porch of a Judean or Galilean home would rarely prove refreshing. The Mediterranean sun would certainly have raised the temperature of the water at best to tepid and possibly even to lukewarm. This, of course, is precisely St. Matthew’s point about a “cup of cold water.”
Genuinely cold water was only accessible at the well. And, exposed to the sun and a balmy breeze, it was only available for a brief time after it had been drawn from the well’s chilly depth. In the ancient world, to proffer someone a cup of “cold” water was a genuine act of kindness, a true gesture of charity, a real sign of respect. And notice also that St. Matthew suggests that this cup of cold water is made all the more worthy when it is presented to one of Christ’s “least” followers — a follower who might have been easily neglected, easily discounted. Such charity implies laying aside one’s own pride and forsaking any hope of personal gain. And such kindness implied a certain amount of effort. This charity was not simply passing a dollar through the car window to the corner panhandler. Securing cold water was quite an imposition for the donor. It was frankly a pain in the neck. Yet, the true believer and thoughtful disciple would willingly oblige.
The Scriptural cup of cold water can take many forms in the life of the modern believer: tend a house while a grieving family attends a wake and a funeral; a card, a phone call, a visit to a neighbor in a nursing home; wait on table at the local meal site; donate long forgotten clothes from closets and drawers; help tidy the homeless shelter; read for the blind; instruct at faith formation class; write a Letter to the Editor; attend a Pro-Life rally; apologize for an unkind word; say a kind word to your pastor. Considering such kindly benefactors, Jesus promises: “He will surely not lose his reward!” Good deeds are not idle gestures; they are investments toward eternity.