After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
The disciples had already finished their food, they had passed around the bread and the cup, and Jesus had told them it was his body and blood. For many of them these words might’ve gone in one ear and out the other; after all Jesus was known for saying all sorts of the things that didn’t make sense right away. Perhaps some of them were picking up the crumbs from the bread when Jesus got up from the table. Others might have been refilling their cups with wine when Jesus tied a towel around his waist. But by the time he started to wash their feet the room must have been silent.
Imagine how profound it would have been to see Jesus kneeling on the floor and using water to wash away the grime of Jerusalem. Even more amazing is the fact that Jesus doesn’t waste time explaining what he’s about to do, he just gets down on the ground and goes to work.
However, Peter, the ever vocal disciple interrupts the serene mood with a question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
“Right now it won’t make sense my friend, but soon it will all come together. If you want to be in this with me, you must let me wash your feet.”
Jesus went from one disciple to the next taking as much time as necessary, holding their feet in his hands, letting the water drip upon them, until he finished.
I took a group of middle-schoolers on a mission trip a number of years ago to Winchester, Virginia. We worked in trailer parks building wooden steps up to the doors, we worked on a wheel chair ramp that took up an entire yard, and we worked on clearing out areas that had been long forgotten. All week we did everything we could to serve the needs of the people from the nearby community, and every night we gathered to sing songs and praise our Lord.
At the end of the week we were invited into the fellowship hall for a foot-washing ceremony. I don’t know if any of you have had the chance to spend a week working outside with middle-schoolers, but it begins to smell pretty bad pretty fast; the prospect of washing one another’s feet was not high on my list of priorities. The leader explained that long ago Jesus washed his disciples feet and we would be doing the same thing. Everyone was invited to participate, but if you were uncomfortable you could simply ask for a prayer instead.
A few chairs and basins were set in the middle of the space, and when the music began we were on our own.
In my work group there was a precious young girl who had worked so incredibly hard all week and there was a young boy that annoyed her every chance he had. He would begin by playfully flicking paint onto her clothes, but when she asked him to stop he became relentless. He called her names behind her back, and schemed to turn the other kids against her. Even after I pulled him aside to set him straight he continued to prey on her at every opportunity.
As we sat in the room waiting for the first people to go forward for the foot washing, I watched the young girl stand up, and bee-line across the room for the annoying boy. For a fleeting moment I was afraid that she had finally had too much and she was about to sock him in the face, but instead she leaned over and asked if she could wash his feet.
While other people started to do the same, my gaze was transfixed on the boy and girl from my group. The boy had gone over the line time and time again yet there she was holding his foot in her hand and washing it. When I looked closer I saw that she was crying and her tears were falling on his feet. And when I looked even closer I saw that he was crying and his tears were falling in her hair.
Foot washing is a service among equals in a company where no one’s status stands out. When Jesus finished with his friends, he called them to do the same to one another. We wash and are washed by our Lord through our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we kneel before a fellow Christian and hold their feet in our hands we make our way back to the upper room so long ago. We aren’t just called to wash the feet of those whom we love, but even the ones who drive us crazy and fill us with anger. Remember: Jesus washed Judas’ feet knowing full and well what he was about to do.
Sometimes the people we need to reconcile with most are the ones in the pews next to us. We tend to sweep under the rug all of the proverbial problems we have with our friends and family and are far more inclined to complain about strangers. If we are filled with stress regarding the closest people in our lives than this might be the best place to embark on a new beginning. Perhaps the water can bring new life for us and for the ones we love and hate.
Jesus took time after breaking bread with his friends to wash their feet. He humbled himself to the floor and showed them what faithful love looks like. With each foot he equipped them for bringing the peace of God into the world. He washed away their insufficiencies and doubts. He rid them of labels and assumptions. He showed them how important they were for the kingdom of God.
If you want to know what faithful love looks like, look no further than this time when we follow the example of Jesus and wash one another. Amen.