Christian Living Stories: A Cup of Cold Water

As she hurried toward her car, focused on her errand from the law firm she worked for, she couldn’t help but notice the dirty, disheveled and obviously homeless man. “Could you give me some water, please?” he asked.

No time, she thought. Sorry about that, but I’ve got to run. But as she got in her car, she was struck by the thought of what she had done, or rather, had not. It wasn’t as if it would have been dangerous for her to help the man. Plenty of people were around—people who also looked the other way.

“Lord,” she prayed, her heart aching, “Forgive me and, please, give me another chance to give a thirsty person some water.”

Have you ever missed an opportunity to help someone in need? I know I have, and my conscience has bothered me just as it did my daughter, Eileen. Well, maybe not as much as hers. She has a tender heart.

Of course, there’s another side of the story to consider. I’ve written articles citing safety concerns, especially for women stopping to help indigent people who ask for help. I haven’t changed my mind. A homeless person assaulted a young friend of mine as she walked to work. The consistent advice from the police is that a woman alone should never stop to help.

“Jesus could handle any situation. We’re not Jesus. We need to be concerned for our safety.”

But, “on the other hand,” as Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof would say, Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan should ring in our ears when we see someone in need (Luke 10:29-37). It is one of the best-known parables, and Jesus’ point was clear. We are responsible to help those who cannot help themselves.

We shouldn’t reason ourselves out of serving when we are able. Jesus said the poor are always with us. What a truism that is. As we’ve seen in the aftermath of the devastation left by hurricane Katrina and other Gulf storms, the poor are still very much with us. And homelessness is an even greater problem.

What a good excuse not to help—treat the homeless as criminals. Yes, some of the homeless are convicted criminals. But many are not. They may have made mistakes and simply have a harder time coping with life, but that is not an excuse for us to turn our backs on them.

Another good Samaritan

A biblical instance of someone asking for water also involves a Samaritan, in this case, a Samaritan woman. One day, when Jesus was tired and thirsty, he stopped at a public well and asked a Samaritan woman for a drink (John 4:1-30). She must have been startled by this request from a dusty traveler. He was obviously a Jew, an enemy of the Samaritans. Why should she bother helping him? She could have ignored him and gone on her way, but she didn’t.

More likely out of curiosity than concern, she responded to this stranger, and because of that, she was one of the first witnesses of his messiahship. They discussed some of the religious issues that separated their two peoples. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ), ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (John 4:25-26).

Not only did Jesus reveal he was the Messiah, he used this woman to witness to the people of her town. She told her townspeople of Christ, and “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done'” (verse 39). A huge blessing for her and her whole town, and all because she took the time to respond to a stranger asking for a drink of water.

So where is the balance? Well, it’s not to stop your car every time you see a person standing on a street corner with his or her hand out and give out money. Shelters with food stations are available in most cities, and some people do work the system. God expects us to use our minds, and, it is hoped, that we apply some level of discernment in how and when to serve the poor. I’ve interviewed officials from big city to small town police departments, and they all tell me much the same: It’s not safe to be a Good Samaritan in this day and age.

What would Jesus do if he saw a bleeding person trying to flag him down? Would he have latex gloves available so he wouldn’t be exposed to AIDS or HIV? Would he have the proper medical supplies handy? Would his insurance cover a lawsuit if he inadvertently furthered an injury to a person? Would he be ready to face an assault if it turned out to be a set-up?

OK, Jesus could handle the situation no matter what. But we are not Jesus. We need to be concerned, not just for our own safety, but also for our families.

Today, many of us carry cell phones. And if not, we’re usually not far from a pay phone. We can call 911 and get professional medical help to injured persons very quickly. This is what police officials highly recommend. A California police officer advises that a woman by herself should never stop to help someone on the side of the road.

When I asked Police Chief Carl Dunlap, of Gainesville, Texas, what a woman should do if, for example, she saw a woman with little children waving at her from a stalled car, he said: “Your first thought should be for your own safety. A lot depends on the circumstances. What might not be OK in Dallas might be all right in rural areas. What we usually recommend for women in the situation you mentioned is roll down your window a little and talk to them. Offer to go get someone to help. Don’t unlock your doors and don’t get out of the car.

“It’s a judgment call for anybody, not just women,” Chief Dunlap said. “You’ve heard the horror stories of people stopping to help and a guy jumps out of the bushes to assault them. It makes anyone leery of stopping.”

If you see someone in trouble, consider your personal safety, but also consider how you might safely offer help. We don’t need to reason ourselves out of serving when we are able. There will always be people who need our help. But we must be careful.

Another chance

It was almost a year later as she hurried toward the door of the building housing her law firm, when Eileen saw him—a little old man in ragged clothes looking way out of place among the lawyers crossing the marbled floors of the lobby in their tailored suits and Italian leather shoes. She wondered how he had gotten past the security guard. “Lady, could you give me some water, please?” he asked.

Suddenly she remembered her prayer. She stopped and said: “You wait right here. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” She ran to the elevators and up to her firm’s office kitchen. She found a cup and filled it with water. Down she came again, hoping security hadn’t forced the old man to leave.

Sure enough, he was still there waiting for her. Though a guard was watching the proceedings with a frown on his face, she gave the grateful man the water.

Don’t beat yourself up if you have neglected to help someone when you had the chance. Plenty of opportunities are out there. Do as Eileen did, pray for another chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Sheila Graham is a freelance writer and speaker on religious topics, including the role of women in the church, women of the Bible, the family, the environment and other Christian-related subjects. She holds degrees in religion from Azusa Pacific Seminary and from Claremont Graduate University.

Author: Sheila Graham


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