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Heart Matters: A Cup of Cold Water

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood near Chicago in the 1940s and 50s where I lived with my parents and brother. By the time I was a preteen, I already had plans for college and a teaching degree. I knew that would take money, and I looked forward to the day when I'd have my first "real" job so I could start saving for school.

When I was barely 16, some family friends who owned a dry cleaning shop announced that they were looking for help. Their building was in a rundown part of the city by the river, but my parents were comfortable with me taking the job because the owners were our church friends.

The first day on the job was quite an awakening. It was a scorching hot June day--with no air conditioning. The only sink in the workroom was black with grime, and the bathroom was so filthy I dared not enter it. An old refrigerator contained canned soda and our sack lunches, but it was only a couple degrees cooler than the heavy, steamy air in the workroom. We could eat lunch outside on the riverbank, but even there we couldn't completely escape the hot steam pouring out of the workroom. I realized pretty quickly that it was going to be a long, really hot summer.

A row of shabby apartments sat next to the dry cleaners. We had an arrangement with an elderly woman who lived on the second floor of one building; she did our mending and alterations. It was my job to waggle the piles of clothing in need of her handiwork up the stairs to her apartment and then pick up what she'd finished.

Every day or so, I'd climb the rickety outdoor stairwell to her apartment in that unforgiving heat. I'd knock on her door and she'd say, "Come in, Nancy." Her cramped apartment was a patchwork of clothing in various stages of repair thrown across sparse furniture. A small, overstuffed chair and footstool sat by a tiny table and lamp--all sized just right for her petite frame. Scissors, spools of thread, and neatly folded clothing were ever-present on the table.

Our routine was always the same. I'd step inside, and she'd say, "Oh honey, you look so hot. Would you like a glass of ice water?"

How wonderful that cold cup of water tasted, with ice cubes tinkling and beads of moisture trickling down the sides. I savored each glass, trying to make it last as long as I could. This woman, who had almost nothing to give, repeated her simple act of kindness to me every time. And I could've asked for no greater gift from her than that simple, cold cup of water; I always left her completely refreshed and encouraged.

Now, I'm a 71-year-old grandma. I can no longer remember the name--or even recall the face--of my summer angel from long ago. But I'll never forget her gift to me; it's forever colored my view of ministry and faith.

She gave me a lifelong understanding of Matthew 10:42: "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."

I can't help but draw a parallel to the children in our ministries. Each week you can give the simplest of gifts to the little ones who most need it: the love of Jesus, a caring pat or hug, a smile, a snack, even just a cold cup of water. Each is a gift from the heart, a gift of refreshment and encouragement, an act of kindness and love that lingers a lifetime.

Nancy Bohlander is a retired early childhood educator. She and her husband live in Nebraska and Arizona.

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