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
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
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
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.