Weird Animals

In the Kingdom of God, being weird is a very good thing.

John 4

weird-animals-vbs-logoWow, what a week we have here a TLUMC with Vacation Bible School! It’s a week of holy chaos that’s full of joy and excitement. I look forward to it every year, as I did when I was a kid.

This year’s theme for VBS was “Weird Animals,” which invited the kids to look at some weird animals in nature as a reminder that God really loves to work out of the box. We looked at animals that live only in strange places, a mole with a nose like a star, a fish with leaves for fins, a lizard that runs like his tail is on fire, a hedgehog with a prickly personality. But even more so we looked at the fact that we humans can be weird, too—each of us unique, each of us with our own struggles, each of us with our own levels of understanding. In fact, when you look at the Scriptures, it seems that God is always choosing the weird, the unlikely, and most unique people to do his best work. While the rest of the world thinks of “weird” as being a negative, God gravitates toward the weird and makes it great.

We see this revealed in Jesus, who spent a lot of time hanging out with people whom others would have considered “weird” and really out there—lepers, mourning women at a tomb, a frightened old man, a bunch of country bumpkins with dirty feet, and a Samaritan woman who comes to the well in the middle of the day alone. And what Jesus does with all of these weird animals is to invite them into an even weirder kind of community—a habitat called the kingdom of God.

samaritan woman 2Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman would have been exceptionally weird in the first century. As the text says, “Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.” Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. Righteous Jews would normally walk a circuitous route around Samaria in order to avoid it altogether on the way to and from Jerusalem. Samaritans were considered to be weird—a people who were formerly Jews but had set up their own temple and intermarried with Assyrian invaders some 700 years before the birth of Jesus. They were thought of as half-breeds and the hatred between the Jews and Samaritans was legendary.

And yet the text tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” That’s the first weird thing about this story because no Jew “had to” go through Samaria! But Jesus is all about the weird, so he goes there to Jacob’s well and encounters this woman, asking her for a drink. All kinds of weirdness here—He is a Jew, she is a Samaritan. He is a man, she is a woman. She is out drawing water in the middle of the day—not in the morning and evening with the rest of the women of the village, who would gather at the well to socialize and gossip. She is weird, but Jesus will invite her to become even weirder.

During VBS, the kids were reminded that every animal needs three things in order to survive and thrive: they need water, they need food, and they need an appropriate habitat. In this story, Jesus will invite the woman and his disciples to reinterpret all three of those things in such a way that they can not only survive but thrive in God’s world—not just the present world, but also the new creation to come.

Notice that with Jesus, as with God’s creation, everything begins with water. He asks the woman for a drink. She questions him: “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Jesus could have talked about social conventions here, but instead he gives a weird answer: “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.’”

Water jarIn the ancient world, “living water” was a euphemism for flowing water, which is usually preferable to standing water. The woman thinks Jesus is being weird—you don’t have a bucket, she says, and the well is deep. She may have been thinking that Jesus had gone mad due to his thirst, not realizing that she was the one who was thirsty. Jesus says to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles us into eternal life.”

Eternal water! Yes, she says, I’d like some of that. I’d never have to come back here to draw water. I’d never have to chance running into those women who ridicule me behind my back. I can stay hidden, like a small animal seeking shelter in the cleft of a rock. She knows her shame and so does Jesus—she’s had five husbands and the man she is living with isn’t her husband. She’s been thirsting for love all of her life, thirsting for a real life. She doesn’t understand that right then, Jesus was offering it to her.

Water is the basic element of life. Without it, we can’t survive. The water that Jesus is offering is also elemental, perhaps even more so. Like the Samaritan woman, many people thirst after many things—love, security, validation—and we’ll do just about anything to quench that thirst. But even if we find temporary relief, we will be thirsty again. Jesus offers a different kind of water—water that quenches for an eternity. It’s the water that he alone can offer. It’s the water that flows from his own life—the source of life itself. Later, in John 7, Jesus will shout to the crowds gathered in the temple, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the Scriptures said concerning me, ‘Rivers of living water shall flow out from within him.’” There John will remind us that Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit, which will guide those who receive it and make them into a community gathered around the living water of Jesus himself.

This is the reason why water is also the basic element for being a follower of Christ. When we come to faith, we are marked with the water of baptism—a sign that we have been given the living water of Christ himself. The living water makes us alive for eternity and commissions us to offer the living water of Jesus for the world. The water marks us out as a weird people who aren’t thirsting after the things the world thirsts for. The water marks us as a community of people who, as the writer of Psalm 1 puts it, bear fruit because we are fed by the source of God’s Spirit and God’s love.

The Samaritan woman, still puzzled by Jesus’ reference to living water and his knowledge of her shame, tries to change the subject. “I see that you are a prophet,” she says. “Well, you know, our ancestors worshipped on this mountain (Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritan temple stood), but you and your people says it’s necessary to worship in Jerusalem.” She moves from water to habitat—where is the right place for God’s people to worship? What’s the best habitat for those who follow him?

Jesus will say that it’s neither. “The time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship him in spirit and truth.” The shorthand way that Jesus uses to talk about this particular habitat is the kingdom of God—God’s reign and rule over the whole earth. In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus says often that the kingdom is at hand—that it’s already here and it’s also coming. It’s the new creation breaking in on the old one—a new habitat that invites us to live within it right now.

chameleonOne of the things we learn about animals is that they’re very good at adapting to their habitats over time. They will take on traits that allow them to live in a particular place, be it with camouflage or what they eat or how they change their bodies to fit the environment. Humans do the same thing, but the question for us is which habitat we’re adapting to. Are we adapting lives to fit the world as it is presently, or are we adapting them to the way of the kingdom that is here and is also coming in its fullness? That’s a key question for disciples of Jesus.

Indeed, Jesus announcement of the kingdom is actually a call to be weird to the rest of the world. Jesus marked out the church to be a weird people whose lives look very little like those who have adapted to the present world. Worshipping God in spirit and truth means that we adapt to the kingdom way in everything. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel and you’ll see that Jesus is turning conventional wisdom on its ear, adapting it to the kingdom habitat. In a world where people adapt themselves to the conventions of money, sex, power, national pride, and violence, Jesus calls those who follow him to adopt the kingdom values of generosity, fidelity, humility, servanthood, and peace. He established the church to be the kingdom community in the world, living a different sort of habitat that will actually thrive for an eternity. You could say that the church is to be a collection of weird animals–weird to the rest of the world, quenched by living water, adapting to a different habitat.

The Samaritan woman listens to Jesus and she begins to see it—that Jesus understands her weirdness. This is no ordinary Jew just asking for a drink. “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she says, “the one who is called the Christ. When he comes he will teach everything to us.” And Jesus says to her the words she and many had longed to hear: “I am the one who speaks to you.”

At this point the disciples show up. They had been in town looking for a McDonald’s and came back to see this weird situation with Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. They were speechless, that’s how weird it was. But while they stood there with their mouths agape, the Samaritan woman took off running—not because she was afraid (as she had been most of her life) but because she had now become one of Jesus’ weird followers. She ran into the city, saying to the people, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I’ve done. Could this man be the Christ?” She instantly adapts from her lonely, shame-filled life to becoming a public witness, an evangelist for the Christ. She becomes weird in a very exciting way! The people of the city ran after her to go and see Jesus for themselves. We have to wonder how many of them became weird, too!

communion foodThe disciples, however, are thinking about food. “Rabbi, eat something,” they say, handing over the Happy Meal. Here again, Jesus says something weird. “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” Suddenly they’re as confused as the Samaritan woman had been a few minutes earlier. “Has someone brought him food?” We already paid for these McNuggets…

No, Jesus says. “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work.” If living water and a proper habitat are essential for eternal life, so is food and for Jesus, the food that matters is the kind that provides energy for doing God’s work.

In fact, Jesus talks a lot about food in this way. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be fed.” He was “made known in the breaking of the bread” in Luke. Later in John he will say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry and whoever believes in me will never go thirsty.” For Jesus, real food is doing what God wants and participating in God’s mission of offering people real, abundant, and eternal life.

Indeed, Jesus goes on to invite his disciples to be food preparers themselves: “Don’t you have a saying, ‘Four more months and then it’s time for harvest? Look, I tell you: open your eyes and notice that the fields are already ripe for harvest. Those who harvest are receiving their pay and gathering fruit for eternal life so that those who sow and those who harvest can celebrate together.”

And a couple of verses later, we learn that Jesus own food preparation leads to many Samaritans in the city believing in him. The Samaritan woman, that weird outcast at the beginning of the story, becomes changed by living water, a new habitat, and the bread of life. And in the years since this story was first told, many, many more have been made alive because of her witness.

That’s the kind of weird animal Jesus is inviting all of us to become. When we gather for worship each week, we’re reminded of the things that can actually sustain us for an eternity: the living water of baptism, the spiritual food we share at the communion table, the kingdom habitat symbolized by the gathered community centered around Jesus. And once we have been reminded, we go forth from this place into the world where we live weird lives—lives that can be compelling to others who have come to realize that their own lives aren’t quenching the deep thirst within, or feeding their souls, or giving them an environment in which to thrive.

The fields around us are ripe for the harvest. It’s going to take a community of weird animals to bring it in. So let’s drink deep, let’s eat for strength, and let’s remember that we were made to live in God’s kingdom. It’s time to get weird!

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