What a precious thing it is to be offered a cup of water, to give a cup of water to another. What a precious thing it is to be offered welcome, to give welcome to another. What a precious thing it is to be offered hospitality, to give hospitality to another.
I've experienced both sides of these realities in my life, and I bet you have too. Being given that cup of cool, refreshing water when hot, thirsty, tired, and fatigued, being welcomed and given the gifts of hospitality by family or friends or utter strangers when hungry, exhausted, unsure, or when jubilant, joyful, festive. And then there's the other side too-giving that cup of water to people who are thirsty, welcoming the stranger, offering hospitality to guests expected or unexpected.
Jesus of Nazareth was well acquainted with the norms of hospitality that were such an important part of the culture of his day. To welcome the stranger, to give a sign of generosity, to offer hospitality were not casual matters; they were of God. And in an even deeper way, they revealed and manifested God.
There's good reason for this because God's very character and nature is that of welcome and hospitality. God's love is wide open and without boundary or barrier. The stories of Scripture reflect this hospitable and welcoming nature of God. God feeds God's people with food and quenches their thirst on their journey from slavery and oppression to freedom and new life. God invites God's people to the banquet table of grace and forgiveness. God welcomes the stranger and the sojourner into God's love.
Jesus modeled his life on and shaped his ministry out of this character and nature of God. Oh, sure, it got him into loads of trouble-welcoming the stranger and the outcast, eating with the tax collector, the sinner, and the harlot, boldly and unabashedly proclaiming that God's love was for everyone everywhere at all times. His ministry was the very epitome of welcome and hospitality. He lived it. He believed it. He died for it and he rose again as a sign of the triumph of hospitality and welcome in God's kingdom.
But what Jesus did and lived became the call for his people as well. Welcome the outcast. Welcome the stranger. Show compassion and hospitality to the hungry and to the thirsty. This was his consistent exhortation, and the early Christian community took this to heart. What a community of hospitality and welcome it was. Those who were not admitted into other segments and sections of the societies of the ancient world were given a cup of cold water, invited in, and offered hospitality at the table. It became one of the noted qualities of those burgeoning communities of faith.
And hospitality has continued as a basic call and identity for the community of faith. It is this call that prompted a wonderful prayer in the form of a Christian rune centuries upon centuries ago in what now is called the British Isles. I saw a stranger yesterday. I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, music in the listening place, and in the blessed name of the triune, he blessed myself and my house, my cattle, and my dear ones. And the lark said in her song, "Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger's guise. Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger's guise."
To welcome the stranger, to offer the gift of hospitality is such an essential ingredient and practice of the Christian way and life for it is a deep and profound way of welcoming the Christ who is present and incarnate in the stranger, in the guest, in the outcast, in the frightened, in the neighbor, in the human being whom God has created and redeemed. It is a deep and profound way of reflecting the welcoming and hospitable love of God which makes us whole.
It seems countercultural in an age and society where privacy and isolation are so normative. We have gated communities, solid walls and security systems. Rapidly disappearing are the front porches and the neighborhoods where people knew each other so well. We're told to be on guard, to fear the stranger, to be suspicious of the ones who are different from us, and, yet, the Gospel is hospitality and invitation proclaimed. And the love of God is welcome and inclusion in its most basic and glistening form. Yes, I've seen such hospitality in the name of the Gospel and in the power of God's love. I have seen it in the welcome given to me by complete strangers in communities of faith far and wide. I have seen it in the greeting of refugees from other countries and the cup of water and plate of food offered to homeless people by the congregations I have served. I have seen it in the seminary community where I live and work today as people strive so diligently and faithfully to live a welcoming and hospitable gospel even in the face of the diversity and differences of race and gender, of background, region, and theological opinion. I have seen it when my family has been welcomed into a new community or when we have welcomed visitors and strangers into our own home and to our own table.
I remember many years ago during my service as a campus minister and university chaplain meeting an extraordinary Christian community of hospitality. It was called El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza -- the home of love and hope -- the House of Hospitality operated by the Episcopal Church in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Its real mission, its primary function was to welcome homeless, hopeless, abandoned street children. It offered these littlest ones a cup of cold water in the form of shelter, food, love, care, education, and opportunity for the future. What a dramatic and powerful hospitality this was for these children. Every time I was there I would learn more about Christian hospitality and its power. It was transforming for these children, for their society, and it was transforming for me. I looked at things differently and became so committed to a ministry where hospitality and welcome would be visible and significant in campuses, in congregations, at schools and other communities and institutions of God's church.
Welcome, hospitality, invitation--it is the way of God. It is the way of the community of faith. It is the way of walking the Christian life. Jesus commanded this way to his followers because it so represented the nature and love of God and because it would build lives and communities of abundant faith, hope, and love. Welcome, hospitality, and invitation would be signs of the transforming love and power of God in this world and in people's lives.
It's simple. It is direct and basic. Welcoming someone. Saying, "Hey, you're invited here!" Offering a cup of cold, refreshing water in the name of the risen Christ. It is simple. It's direct and basic. But, then, like so much of the Gospel, it grows. It grows into patterns and practices of generosity, inclusion and welcome that can change and build people's lives. Of course, we are realistic and we see the world for what it is. Of course we know that people keep their distance. They stay away from each other. That there is violence and enmity in this world, that fragmentation and division exists at virtually every level of human life. But what if we welcome someone, what if we give a cup of refreshing water to someone. What if we practice hospitality and open our churches, our homes, and our hearts to other people? The result is quite real and quite dramatic. Walls are broken down; fear, distrust, and enmity are abolished. The church becomes God's house where all people are welcome. The home becomes God's house where compassion is shown widely. The heart becomes God's house where there is room for compassion, for hope, for generosity, for the spirit, for the love of God itself.
Today Jesus welcomes us to welcome others. Today Jesus offers hospitality at the table of life so that we might offer hospitality to others. Today Jesus gives us a cup of refreshment so that we might offer such a cup to others. Today, Jesus invites and includes us into the very heart and life of God so that we might invite and include others. All that needs to be said by us is said to us: Welcome. Have a cup of water. You are home.
Let us pray.
Ever living God, whose will it is to welcome people to come to you from all parts of the earth, inspire our witness to Jesus Christ that people everywhere may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his love, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.