“I thirst!” This cry of the dying Christ is on the parched lips of millions of people in our world today. Half a million people die every year from polluted water, and two out of six people still have to carry home the water they use. Pope Francis comments on this crisis in his recent encyclical: “Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to life consistent with their inalienable dignity” ( Laudato Si 30).
The corporal work of mercy to give drink to the thirsty is even more fundamental than giving food to the hungry, because water is a more basic necessity than food. We have a duty to educate ourselves about the need for water in other parts of the world and help sponsor programs that build the infrastructure in developing countries if we can.
Closer to home, we Californians are certainly more water-conscious as we go through the drought that has visited our state over the past several years. We have gone through such relative privations before, and the danger is that when the drought passes we can resort to old habits that waste water. Perhaps, in light of this work of mercy, we might look on the current restrictions as an opportunity to make lasting changes in our lifestyle; water is always a precious resource.
We should also be aware that it is not only in far distant lands that people are denied water: in some hospitals water and basic nutrition are withheld from terminally ill patients or those in a coma. This is a great moral evil, and we must raise our voices in witness to the inherent dignity of every human being until the end of natural life.
Given the standard of living in our country it is unlikely that we will encounter someone who is dying of thirst. However, we can link this work of mercy to the one preceding (give food to the hungry) and the one following (clothe the naked) and see that these works of mercy urge us to help our neighbors, whatever their basic needs are.
When speaking of receiving his followers, Our Lord says: “Whoever gives to these little ones even a cup of cold water because they are disciples, truly, I say to you, shall not lose their reward” (Mt 10:42). Two comments might be in order here. First, Christ’s attention to detail – specifying cold water – holds a lesson for us: our sharing should be considerate. Jesus offers a model of “courtesy” that celebrates the dignity and standing of the other person. Time and again we see him exercising this thoughtfulness when healing the sick.
Second, his instruction underscores how important even little acts of charity are; none of them, however slight, is missed by our loving God. Pope Francis dealt with major environmental and social challenges facing the human family in his encyclical, but he also underscored how important seemingly small acts can be: “Saint Therese of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” ( Laudato Si 230).
A woman carried her pitcher to the well and there met a man who asked her, “Give me a drink” (Jn 4:7). That simple request began a conversation that changed her life forever. Such is the power of one cup of cold water!