40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
The eastern half of the North American continent is fortunate; unbelievably fortunate. There are not many other places in the world so blessed, and certainly, I don’t believe, over such a great geographical area. We here are blessed with abundant water. Even in times of drought, we have more water than most places in the world. Much of the world is desert: dry, dusty, parched desert. Plants sink roots far down into the earth seeking water. Animals and humans wander from watering place to watering place. Those who venture too far away from water or those who get lost die in the dryness. The Bible can be difficult to understand for many reasons, but one of them is that we eastern North Americans and western Europeans are live in conditions that are so different from those in Israel/Palestine. We can understand intellectually the importance of water, but having to live with the day to day impact of the lack of water is different.
On my first visit to Yosemite, I camped one night at Tuolumne Meadows. As I stood in line for the communal sinks to brush my teeth, I heard one Californian yell at a woman, obviously from the east, to turn off the water. The woman was brushing her teeth and letting the water run as she did. How often have you done that? I certainly did that all my life, without ever giving a thought to the water I was wasting, sending coursing down the drain. I’d never lived through years of drought in California. But even California during a drought is blessed compared to Palestine. Much of the land is desert. There are areas in the west blessed with rain, and areas along the Jordan which have water, but the rest is either arid or dessert. In the Negev, you can walk across the desert, the dirt crunchy beneath your feet. Plants, even small ones, are rare.
A cup of water is the difference between life and death. Hospitality is central in desert cultures because the environment is so difficult. Hospitality is simply a matter of life and death. For us a cup of water is simple: going to the sink, turning on the faucet, perhaps letting the water run a bit to cool it and then fill a glass. For those in Palestine in Jesus’ time, a cup of water was more difficult. The women arise early and walk to the well. There they send a bucket down into the depths of the well and then lift up the bucket of water. Think about how heavy that water was. A gallon of water weighs eight pounds. Imagine lifting a bucket with a gallon of water. Imagine lifting eight pounds up, straight up out of the earth. Now, there may have been pulley systems to ease the burden, but even so, the water had to be carried from the well to the house. Giving a cup of water to a stranger was important. Receiving a cup of water is a blessing.
This passage is the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ missionary discourse. These are the last words Jesus says before he sends his disciples out to tell others that the kingdom of God is near. The worlds are an assurance of welcome. Those who welcome the disciples will receive a reward. This is the assurance of the welcome we will receive, we do receive into God’s realm.
I have been reading a new book, Saving Paradise, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. Both are theologians who have been studying concepts of salvation in the early church. The book began as the two visited the catacombs in Rome. In all the art in the catacombs, they did not find a depiction of the crucifixion. Fascinated, they continued to look at early church art. They looked at early churches in Rome. They visited Ravenna, the site of the most beautiful early church mosaics. They visited early churches over the middle east. They examined early icons. The earliest crucifix they found, the earliest image of the dead Christ is in the tenth century. Intrigued, the examined early church writings for clues about early Christian ideas of salvation. What they found was the image, the idea of paradise.
The word paradise comes from the Persian. It is a word for a walled garden. But a paradise garden in Persia is more than simply a walled garden. The focus of a paradise garden is water, like a river, running from a high point, through the garden, to the garden’ s entrance. Often a paradise garden is divided into quadrants. Each quadrant is in bloom one season of the year. There is something always in flower, bearing fruit in the garden.
In Genesis, Eden, the first paradise often pictured as on the top of a mountain, a river flows through the garden, and from there, the river divides into four rivers. God has planted Eden with every sort of tree. The human beings in Eden do not need to work; food is there for them all the time. In the cool of the evening, God walks through the garden. In the last book in our scriptures, at the end of the book, John of Patmos writes of the future earth. Through the middle of the new Jerusalem, the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. God dwells in the city.
Paradise. God invites us, welcomes us into Paradise. Now, close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Put away your shopping list, Take another deep breath. Put away your to do list for the rest of today, for tomorrow. Take another deep breath. Put away your worries. Take another deep breath. Now, imagine a paradise garden. You are standing at the entrance. It is hot, very hot and dry. As you look into the garden, there is a hill and coursing down the hill is a river of clear, sparkling water. On either side of the river are trees, some flowering, others with fruit. Among the trees are plants and flowers. It is the most beautiful garden you can imagine. And, there at the entrance is God. She, or He, however you imagine God, is there welcoming you. Come, in, come in. We have been waiting for you. Let me walk with you. And you walk. God finds a comfortable bench and you both sit down. God slides God’s arm around your shoulders. “What has been bothering you?” God asks. “What are you afraid of?” “What concerns you?” “How can I help you?”
God is waiting, right now, to welcome us into paradise. Paradise is not something we have to wait for. Paradise is not something we have to strive for. Paradise is not something we have to be good enough for. Paradise is waiting. We are welcome. God is waiting to welcome us home, to paradise with God. Amen.