May and June seem to be the peak seasons of hospitality. As I write this at least a dozen people I know are getting ready to host parties for graduations, weddings, Memorial Day cookouts, or friends and family coming for a visit now that summer has arrived. About a hundred more, like me, are buying gifts, making side dishes or packing suitcases in preparation for being guests.
Many years ago, on a visit to an infamous mansion where a murder had occurred, I learned that the pineapple is the universal symbol of hospitality. Later, on visits to many other famous and infamous mansions, plantations and castles this theme was repeated. Other journeys led me to St. Benedict who included the practice of hospitality in his Rule for his followers. "Let everyone that comes be received as Christ" is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted phrases of the Rule. Hospitality for Benedictines means that everyone who comes — the poor, the traveler, the curious, those not of our religion or social standing or education — should be received with genuine acceptance.
Perhaps the most common practice of hospitality is the phrase "can I get you something to drink?" When I lived in Minnesota and other cold places this meant the coffee was on. Here in Texas the most offered drink is iced tea. Whatever the drink, the intention is clear. When someone says to me "can I get you something to drink" they are really saying "you are welcome here and I care about your well-being."
So what is the mark of true hospitality? I think it's a simple cup of water. There is nothing more vital to human life than water. Isn't this is so like God - to freely supply what we need for the welcoming of others? Supplying what we need to enter into relationship? I will freely give a cup of water to someone I would be reluctant to invite to my table. Yet, in the giving of the water I am affirming that person's value and my concern for my neighbor's well-being . Jesus said "when I was thirsty you gave me water" and his followers responded "when did we see you thirsty and give you water?" He replies "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me". What a lovely, simple way to love God and neighbor - when they are thirsty, give them a drink.
If you live, as I do, in a city with homeless people who stand at busy intersections with signs asking for food, work, money or rides, you may really struggle with hospitality. The homeless make you feel helpless, inadequate, sad, and guilty. You often wish they would go away. It's hard to explain their presence to your children who still have the natural hospitality most kids possess. Maybe we should start with water. Put a case of water bottles in the trunk of the car and keep a couple inside to hand out the window. It's a decent, kind, helpful, and hospitable thing to do.
We all get thirsty. We're all human. We all need the water, and the welcome.