Not long ago I was in Pittsburgh during the citywide marathon. It was a cold, rainy day. Yet over 20,000 people showed up to run. Another 6,000 or more people volunteered to support those marathoners, many of them standing on the sidelines cheering on the runners and handing them water.
Think about that. For fourteen hours in the cold and rain people stood to offer others encouragement, a moment of connection and a drink to help them go on. There were no bragging rights in that. No medals. No records to break. No coverage in the news. Yet they came, and many of the runners wouldn't have succeeded in their goals if they hadn't.
That is one example of what giving drink to the thirsty is all about. Sure, the marathon committee could have just had unmanned stations along the way for the runners to grab water as they ran by, but that would have deprived the runners of the encouragement and connection that fueled them to go on.
Again, as with the first Corporal work of Mercy -feeding the hungry- we see that it's not just the substance that matters, but the manner in which it’s provided.
Let's look at how this applies to us as mothers.
One example, that always jumps out at me when I think of this work, is hearing, “Cannnn I have a drink of waaaaterrr?” sometime during the night when one of my littles was supposed to be sleeping. Let's be honest here, can anything get on a mom’s last nerve like hearing that when all you want is to get on with something, ANYTHING non-kid related at night. You’ve given your all, all day. You’ve desperately waited all day for those precious, all too short moments of “off-duty” time, and then you hear that call. It can bring us to the end of our patience in a split second. I know there were nights I wondered if it would bring me to the end of my sanity as well.
Then I read a column that talked about how St. Teresa of Calcutta used to awaken one or two hours before the rest of her sisters to go out and tend to the outcasts of the city. On the one hand, I immediately saw the holiness and sacrifice in this. On the other, my exhausted brain thought, “Gee at least she got to decide when she's going to wake up to tend to people, we moms have to jump up out of an exhausted sleep whenever our family needs us. I promise, I wasn't being prideful. I was just such a tired mom that sleeping ALL THE WAY to 3 o’clock in the morning sounded almost luxurious.
But what also occurred to me is that Mother Teresa would go out at 3am with a smile on her face, kindness in her actions, and love for God’s children in her heart. Yet we as mothers are almost encouraged to be grouchy, irritable, and harsh when responding in the night to the needs of God’s children under our roof.
Mother Teresa knew that it was not just water and food that those she tended needed. They needed kindness, comfort, reassurance when they were feeling scared and alone. These are the same things our children need from us when they ask for that inconvenient drink of water, and if we choose to answer with patience, kindness, and love (and yes we usually have to ask God for an extra helping of Grace to do this) we can transform those moments into moments that spiritually transformation for both of us.
In this we get to experience Christ in two ways. In the first we get to minister to the suffering Christ present in our children. Just as we may wish we could have comforted Jesus in His suffering or given him a drink in answer to His words “I thirst”. We can comfort Him in the form of “the least of these” in our children.When we accept His invitation to come to Him in our children, we experience Him showing us how very loved and important we are through our children's eyes, and we are invited to overcome our weariness and sinfulness just as the woman from whom He asked for a drink at the well was.
Secondly, we transform that moment for our child by being an embodied response of a loving and merciful God who loves them with all of His being all of the time.That response is some of the earliest and best evangelization our children will ever know. When we later talk of the great God who loves them very much, they will have a reference point in the memory of seeing His face reflected in your responses.
Now I'm not saying we should let this go on all night. If we have tucked them into bed, using a nurturing bedtime ritual, and been loving and kind in response to their request for a drink (or whatever) later if it occurs, it's absolutely fine to set a gentle, firm limit in the behavior if they are old enough. But this limit is far more likely to be cooperated with if you meet the emotional needs behind the request first.
With our older children it is a good idea to use “giving drink to the thirsty” in ways that help us connect with them in supportive, non-confrontational ways. We certainly do this with friends don't we? We don't ask our friends “out for a cup of coffee” or “out for a drink after work” and then sit there drinking and ignoring them because we just want to keep ourselves from dehydrating do we? Of course not. What we're really thirsting for is friendship and connection.
We should extend this practice to our older children. Stop at a favorite place on the way home from school for a lemonade or hot cocoa to reconnect after the day apart. Have a tea time with them at home with a snack and tea and a good chat. Share cups of camomile tea before bed and catch up on each other's day lives in ways that only seem to happen in the quiet, calm hours of the night. Invite that adult child out for a cup of coffee, at a convenient time for you both, and catch up on each other's lives.
The purpose of giving drink to the thirsty is much more about the watering of a person's soul then it is about hydration, and you don't have to stand in the rain for fourteen hours to do it, you just have to connect with the children who seek your time and attention because you are more important to them than anybody else in the world.