"I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink"

Matthew 25:31-46

Preached on Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017

Surprise!  Do you like to be surprised?  Some surprises are good—like surprise birthday parties or a job offer or news of a baby or grandbaby on the way.  These are good surprises that we welcome and celebrate!

Other surprises are not so good—like a pink slip from your boss or a letter from the IRS of an audit of your taxes or your spouse announcing a divorce.  These are surprises that we do not welcome but lament!

In life, there are good surprises and not so good surprises.

 

Our gospel lesson for today is filled with surprises—good and bad. 

Jesus teaches his disciples the final lesson before his passion and death.  He describes the final judgment:  when the Son of Man sits on his throne in glory, he will say to some of the people, “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

The righteous ones were surprised, and they asked him to help them understand, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?   And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’    And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to the others, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 

They were surprised and they asked him to help them understand, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And the biggest surprise: these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Both groups of people were surprised.  One group was surprised that in doing small things for others, they were actually doing them for Christ.  The other group was surprised that doing small things—like taking care of others—was actually a big thing—with ultimate consequences. 

We who hear this today are surprised that the criterion of judgment-of whether one will enter the kingdom of heaven-is if one has acted with loving care for needy people.  Surprise!  We can’t live selfishly and recklessly and count on grace to save our soul in the end.  And if we want to be closer to Jesus, we have to get closer to the least of these.  For we meet Jesus right where he tells us he will be…in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. 

Friends, I am telling you this now, because I don’t want you to be surprised in the end.

This week we focus on thirst in our world today. 

Water is basic and vital for all known forms of life.  Safe drinking water is essential to humans and other lifeforms.  Access to safe drinking water has improved over the last decades in almost every part of the world, but approximately one billion people still lack access to safe water.  There is a clear correlation between access to safe water and gross domestic product per capita.  The poor have less access to safe water. 

The city of Flint, Michigan made the national news for its water crisis.  Flint was home to General Motors’ biggest plant.  But when it closed, an economic crisis followed.  In Flint, 41% of residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is about $25,000; the household income for the rest of Michigan is double that. The city is 57% African-American.  The state of Michigan took over Flint’s deficit budget and to save money, switched the water supply to the Flint River even though the water was known to be of poor quality, running through old lead pipes that were not treated.  Consequently, Flint’s drinking water had a series of problems that culminated with lead contamination, creating a serious public health danger.  Thousands of children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead that can lead to a range of serious health problems:  impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty.  In pregnant women, lead can lead to reduced fetal growth.  In everyone, lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys and nerves. Although there are medications that may reduce the amount of lead in the blood, treatments for the adverse health effects of lead have yet to be developed.

Water is so basic.  It’s easy to provide.  But also easy to pollute.  It’s easy to give freely.  But also easy to give foolishly or financially.  It’s easy to distribute. But also easy to discriminate. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.”

Surprise!  Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.’ 

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation made national news for its water issue.  The Dakota Access Pipeline was projected to run from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  Many in this native American tribe consider the pipeline and its intended crossing of the Missouri River to constitute a threat to the region’s clean water and would put the water source for the reservation at risk.  Thousands of people—many people from religious communities of faith—joined the protest.  Police use of water cannons on protestors in freezing weather drew significant media attention.  Under President Obama’s administration, an environmental impact assessment was to be conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.  President Trump signed an executive order to advance the construction of the pipeline and authorized the Army Corp to proceed without completing the environmental impact assessment and without consultation with the Sioux people.  On Feb. 16, a letter from Peacemaking Committee of the Pittsburgh Presbytery was sent to PNC Bank that asked them to pull out its $270,000,000 investment in the Pipeline project, saying:  “It is with our faith and our faith communities that we request you make these changes and hear our voices.”  On Feb. 23 all protestors and Sioux people were forced to leave and the camp was cleared out for the project to continue.

Water is so basic.  It’s easy to provide.  But also easy to pollute.  It’s easy to give freely.  But also easy to give foolishly or financially.  It’s easy to distribute. But also easy to discriminate. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.”

Surprise!  Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.

I heard this true story from a colleague and shared it a couple months ago.  It bears repeating because I think it speaks to our lesson today in a particular and powerful way.  In Atlanta, there are two Presbyterian Churches right across the street from each other.  In between, on the street, one Sunday, there was a parade, people standing up and marching for the rights of gay and lesbian (LGBTQ) people.  On one side of the road, a Presbyterian church protested and called the marchers names and said they were sinners going to hell. 

The other Presbyterian church took a different approach.  They poured water into dixie paper cups and stood along the route handing out cups of water to those who walked by.  An old woman—well into her 80s—diligently filled up cups of water and put them on a tray.  She was a little unsteady on her feet, but that did not stop her. She began to walk out into the street, offering cups of water to people as they marched by. But she did not stop there.  She continued all the way across the street, to the other side, to where her Presbyterian sisters and brothers were shouting insults at the marchers.  She said not a word.  She simply lifted up her tray and offered them a drink of water. 

Jesus said, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Surprise!  It’s the small things shared with the least of these that matter most in the end.

As Mother Teresa once said, “Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…the smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.”

 

May it be so.  Amen.