Again, John does not disappoint. Rather, God does not disappoint. I’ve come to John with suspicion and little expectation...and I find a small treasure that enriches the Church and our own Christian lives. Come...let’s see....
v.1-3: John sets the scene and begins that final journey towards the Cross. I am always surprised that Holy Week begins about half way through this Gospel. In the others (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the Passion Week comes in as the last ¼ of the book. Not with John.
In some translations, perhaps the better ones, v.3 bleeds into v.4. John’s observation or connection here seems odd to me:
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. (NIV)
John sets this up as cause/effect affair: Because Jesus knew these things about himself, he gets up to wash feet. At first, this seems odd. But, perhaps he realizes that his place of ultimate prominence infuses the act with ultimate meaning. The One who is above all is taking the form and behavior of a servant. This means much.
v.4-11: Jesus washes the disciples feet...and engages in that revealing debate with Peter. The debate reveals how stubborn Peter is...and the debate reveals the reason for the foot-washing...sort of.
v.12-17: Here Jesus really reveals what’s going on—no one is above another and no task is beneath another. The passage taken literally indicates that the disciples then and we today are to carry on the practice of washing feet.
First, this seems to be an ‘in-house’ practice. Jesus doesn’t take the basin outside and wash the feet of the passersby. Rather, he is washing his disciples’ feet...and encourages them to wash each others’ feet. Some folks will bristle at this idea: “What? We need to wash everyone’s feet!!” Well, nice thought...but we don’t see it here. This is about washing each other’s feet...caring for one another in the Church. For many, it’s easy to care for the ‘immigrant, homeless, orphan, stranger;’ are we caring for one another?
Second, washing feet means that the disciples have been in the streets, on the road. People who don’t leave the house won’t have dirty feet. Jesus expects that his disciples will be walking the roads of life, that they’ll be getting their feet dirty. Are we and our people getting their feet dirty?
Then, Jesus does this without being asked, and—as far as we know—without anyone saying, “Dang, my feet are dirty. I wish somebody would wash ‘em.” Jesus sees the need, and he acts. He sees the needs of his brothers...and he addresses the need. How many times do we wait until someone says something before we act?
And, what about us in the 21st Century? My feet aren’t really dirty. You can wash my feet, and it’ll probably tickle me more than anything. So, what does ‘foot washing’ mean and look like in our day and time? We’re more likely to get our hands dirty than our feet dirty. Thinking of getting our hands dirty, I recall studying Macbeth in high school and college, and that brilliant monologue of Lady Macbeth in which she washes her hands and mourns, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” She is complicit in murder...and her hands are stained (not literally.) I wonder if foot washing today may include standing up for our brothers and sisters who find themselves stained, in tight spots.
Maybe you’ve heard lines like these from others:
“Hey, doesn’t Mr. Smack go to your church? I heard recently that he voted against the new re-districting plan...” “You know Susan? I saw her at a party two weeks ago and she was trashed!” “Yeah, I saw old widow Jones at the flea market—she was blessin’ someone out about the price of an old lamp....”
Time to wash feet—unasked, but needed.
“I know Mr. Smack...and I know he is in worship each Sunday—I think he’s trying to live and do better.”
“Susan struggles with some issues, but she is seeking God. I think we’re seeing changes in her life.”
“Mrs. Jones is one of our faithful ones. I guess everyone has a bad day....”
I’m not suggesting we excuse or explain away the actions or inactions of our brothers and sisters. I’m suggesting we strive to remove some of the grime that society and life may put on them, that we respond with something positive, helpful. We wash their feet and they never know.
Or, perhaps prayer is the water we now use. We pray for people who haven’t asked for it...but who are getting dirty on the road of life. In my own ministry, I collect as many cell numbers as I can of the folks in our congregation. Every now and then, I drop a text that says, “Hey...thinking of you today. You are in my prayers...that God may give you all the strength and wisdom you need for this day. See you soon!” Washing feet...unasked, unexpected.
How many times do we go by the fellowship hall, the church kitchen, a Sunday school classroom...and someone has left it a mess—big or small. When we get down off our high horse, we can grab a hand towel...and wash someone’s feet...save them from criticism...and make sure the place is ready for the next person or people coming through.
I don’t know how else to ‘wash feet’ in meaningful ways in the 21st Century. Somehow, we need to find ways to strip away the grime of the daily walk of life, to bring a moment of refreshing to our brothers and sisters in Christ...without their asking, without their expecting. What are ways you have found to wash feet in our day and time?
(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)