Window in Christ Church in Korntal – Footwashing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55035 [retrieved February 27, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Glasfenster_Fu%C3%9Fwaschung_Korntal_Christuskirche.jpg.
John 13.1-17 (NIV)
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
I can’t blame Peter for not wanting to have anything to do with Jesus washing his feet.
My clearest memory of a foot washing service is on that happened in an elementary school library. I was an intern with a High School youth group and we were on a mission trip to the Lame Deer reservation in Eastern Montana. The hosts of our trip planned a special event for each night we were there. The first night they took us to see cliff’s that hunting parties would chase buffalo over. Another night we were challenged to a basketball game against the Boys and Girls Club’s all-stars – they completely destroyed us! The last night, we gathered in the school library for a special worship service planned around foot washing. We were divided into groups of 5 or so students with an adult leader. Each group was given a shoe-box-sized-clear plastic storage container full of lukewarm water, a bar of Ivory soap, a washcloth, and a towel.
Someone read John 13 and gave instructions to sit in a circle and wash each other’s feet just like Jesus did. There was an awkward silence and stillness … I figured I might as well start off our circle … trying to touch their feet as little as possible I washed the person sitting next to me’s feet. As we went around the circle washing feet, I noticed it seemed more uncomfortable for the person whose feet were being washed than for the person doing the washing. In a Peter-ish moment, one guy flat-out refused to have anything to do with having his feet washed or washing anyone else’s feet.
Finally, we had worked our way around the circle and it was my turn … I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my jeans, and one of the students began to wash my feet. It was just as awkward and uncomfortable as everyone made it look. After my feet had been dried with that sopping wet towel … the group sat quietly and waited.
One of the mission trip hosts walked into the center of our circle, pushed the foot washing supplies toward me, awkwardly grabbed my foot, and quietly and seriously started to scrub my feet. We must have missed instructions that our hosts were going to wash the adult leaders’ feet. Once was intense enough … two times? I could see my group lighten up and try to hold back smiles and giggles.
If it wasn’t already awkward and uncomfortable enough, I had to have my feet washed twice that night. My group couldn’t stop kidding me about how clean my feet must have been!
I can’t imagine what it would have been like for those disciples lying around that table to see Jesus get up from the meal, take off his outer clothing, wrap a towel around his waist, and work his way around the room, pouring water into a basin, washing and drying his disciple’s feet. Who could blame them for being uncomfortable with the whole deal? Jesus, the one who said he was from God, that God was his father, and if you wanted to see and know who God is and what God is like, you needed to spend time with him, taking on the role of the lowliest slave? Washing and drying each of his disciples’ stinky and dirty feet … even Judas’ feet, the guy who would later sell him out?
This was not an everyday kind of thing.
Polite hosts were expected to leave water so their guests could wash their own feet. If things were really fancy, maybe a slave that was lowest on the totem pole would be assigned to wash feet. I don’t think it would have ever crossed anyone’s mind that a host would wash his guest’s feet himself.
We have heard this story so many times that sometimes, we become numb to this … but this is totally a “What the heck?” moment.
This really would have been shocking and confusing!
John, tells us Jesus, the one he introduced as being with God in the beginning and having a part in God’s making everything there is, as revealing God’s heart and God’s desires for people, the one who, makes wine from water, heals the blind, raises the dead, who claimed he was God and the one God was sending to save the world, served his students in the most humbling and demeaning way anyone could have imagined.
There was no way they would have anticipated this coming.
As awkward as it was, Jesus insisted that if Peter wanted to have anything to do with him, if Peter wanted to live in a relationship with Jesus, Peter had to let Jesus wash his feet … as uncomfortable as it was, Peter had to receive this humble act of love and devotion from Jesus … he had to let Jesus love him with his self-giving … life-giving … meet you in the ordinariness and griminess of everyday life and leave you better off than you were when you started kind of love.
Of course it made Peter uncomfortable.
If we are paying attention this should make us feel uncomfortable too.
When [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13.12-17 NIV).
Having our feet washed and washing someone else’s feet.
Being served and serving.
Experiencing love and passing love along.
This is our rhythm. This is what discipleship looks like.
Sometimes we get the idea that to experience God, we have to get away from our regular routines, escape from distractions, and even take a break from people.
There was a time in ancient Christian history when people were flocking to deserts and wildernesses to live alone and isolated as ascetics and hermits (super-self-disciplined, super-spiritual-people), hoping to have a fuller and richer experience of God. These people were often celebrated as heroes of the faith.
Basil of Caesarea, who was probably born sometime around 330 AD, was a priest known for his great compassion and care for the poor and sick. Basil was concerned these lonely and solitary ascetics were missing something essential to Christian life. Basil wrote,
“… The Lord by reason of his excessive love for man was not content with merely teaching the word, but so as to transmit to us clearly and exactly the example of humility in the perfection of charity, girded himself and washed the feet of his disciples. Whom, therefore, will you wash? To whom will you minister? In comparison with whom will you be the lowest, if you live alone?” (Basil’s Longer Rule, “Readings in World Christian History, v. 1” p. 145).
That question has stuck with me for a long time … sometimes I just want to get away to experience God, without distractions … without people around, but Jesus’ call to wash one another’s feet, and that question, “Whose feet will you wash?” comes back to me.
Discipleship … isn’t about escaping. Discipleship is about engaging in a relationship with God. Discipleship is about embracing community. Discipleship has a distinct rhythm – being loved and loving … being served and serving.
We experience God, we know God’s love and goodness when we allow our Christian community to love us … when we push through our pride or awkwardness and ask our church family for help … and humbly receive the love of our community.
We experience God, we know God’s grace and presence, when we allow ourselves to pick up that dishrag … that vacuum … whatever it is we need to put our love into action and serve the people around us.
Who is washing your feet?
Whose feet are you washing?