John 13:1-17 March 13, 2022
I’m taking an online class for Lent about Jesus. You would think I know enough about the founder of Christianity after all these years, but I’m still curious. One of the books for the class is titled “Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic…or Awesome!” It so happens that I have that book and read it several years ago. I have called him Lord, Liar, or Lunatic, but now I prefer to go with awesome. The co-teachers of this 3000 member class noted our diverse group. A small group of Unitarians in the Midwest because they can’t talk about Jesus in their UU Society. Many participants have struggled with their faith as the world changes and realize that their old understanding of Jesus isn’t helping. If Jesus is just the guy who died for our sins on the cross, how does that help now in the face of climate change or COVID and the possibility of a world war? Or if Jesus is just a wisdom teacher, is that enough to change us, heal us, and give hope to our weary souls?
One teacher remarked, isn’t it interesting that 3000 people, most of whom know a lot about Jesus already, will spend Lent taking this class when they could be doing something else to make the world a better place. That’s true. I could be studying Stoic philosophy, cognitive behavioral therapy, continuing ed for coaching, or community organizing for the climate crisis. But I’m taking yet another class on Jesus because he is challenging, liberating, and awesome.
This scripture today about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is precisely why he is so compelling. Knowing he is likely to be killed on his last night, he wants to leave his disciples with an essential lesson they won’t forget. So, he washes their feet. Who does that? Have you ever washed anyone’s feet? I bet many of you don’t even wash your own feet. Honestly, how many of you just figure the soap and water will run down your body and gravity will clean your feet. We hardly think about our feet unless they hurt. He washed their feet! Imagine coming to church, and the pastor is at the front door offering to give you a footbath before you go in. Would you ever come back? What kind of person wants to touch your feet? And in Jesus’ day, they wore sandals and traveled dusty streets. I don’t know if nail clippers had been invented yet. But still, Jesus washed their feet. You see why “lunatic” is in the book’s title. My first reaction agrees with Peter. “You are not washing my feet, Jesus!”
On the surface of the story, we get the meaning. We are on this earth to serve others, not ourselves. You agree with that. We sometimes fall short, but we agree that it is good to aid Ukrainian refugees, or be a Deacon, take a bowl of your best Tuscan white bean soup to someone who had surgery, build a Habitat House. Couldn’t Jesus simply tell his disciples to serve each other, give Peter the volunteer of the year award and call it a day? Why did he have to do something so socially awkward?
Jesus must think they really did not get it yet. The Gospels tell us of a day when Jesus asked why the disciples were arguing. After an awkward silence, they admitted they discussed who was the greatest. Jesus challenges them and says, the last shall be first, and the first last. The greatest must be the servant. When we hear the command to serve others, I think we hear it positively. We see public service as a good thing. We thank veterans for their service to the country. Service is commended. Being a servant, not so much. Think Downton Abbey. We don’t aspire to be a maid, a footman, or a butler. Here, the Greek word means to serve tables or be a personal servant to someone else. In Greek culture, service is undignified. You are born to rule or born to serve, and everyone knows which is better. Jesus is literally saying to his disciples, take the low place with each other as servants. In Greek, they said, “Be a diakonos.” Be a Deacon. Today we ask someone to be a deacon, and they might say they aren’t worthy. Ask a first-century Greek to be a Diakonos, and they would be insulted.
To the Greek mind, Jesus should gather his disciples on his last night before his execution, and they wash his feet as a final act of devotion. Remember the story of the weeping woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair? In the Greco-Roman world, that is showing intense devotion to the master. It isn’t supposed to go the other way.
John’s Gospel has put the towel and water basin right at the heart of his story. In the other three Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, the Last Supper happens at this moment. Jesus gives them bread and wine and says, this is my body, this is my blood, remember me when you eat and drink these. That is his closing ritual. John’s Gospel does not have a Last Supper Communion. Instead, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. If we had lost the other three Gospels and only had John, we would do a monthly foot washing instead of communion. How would the church be different if that were our practice?
I looked up all the references to foot washing in the Bible. There are several references in Genesis to the hospitality of foot washing. In each case, the host provided water for the guest to wash their own feet. There is one passage in Exodus 30 where Aaron and the first priests are instructed to wash their feet and hands before coming to the altar to offer sacrifice. It is a purification ritual to honor the holiness of God. They are commanded to do so, and if they forget, they will die. (I’m glad we have loosened up about priests making mistakes in worship!). If Jesus had been following Old Testament precedent, he could have given each disciple a bowl of water and a towel, and they could have all washed their feet for this holy night ahead.
I’m sure Peter would have been fine washing his own feet. Offering a towel and basin is a reasonable amount of hospitality. Jesus is blunt with Peter. I wash your feet, or you are not a part of me. If the point is that we all need to serve each other, why is Jesus so adamant about this? He is not asking Peter to wash Bartholomew’s feet. Peter might have done that without hesitation. Jesus has upset the status quo, and Peter is deeply disturbed by it. It isn’t dignified. Peter doesn’t want to dedicate his life to a servant who washes feet; he wants to follow a glorious Messiah. He wants Jesus above him, not on his knees below.
Peter’s struggle isn’t an unwillingness to serve but to be served. Being served may take more humility than offering your service. When we serve, we are still in charge; we are the giver who has something to offer. Being served implies that we might need something from someone else. The horror! Someone might think we are not self-sufficient and capable of handling our life.
This is why Jesus was so adamant about washing Peter’s feet. If you don’t think you need anything from God, then you aren’t on a spiritual journey. If you are entirely self-sufficient, you don’t need spirituality; you just need a good Day-Timer notebook or a calendar with a checklist. Jesus is the Great Physician, and he came to heal our soul sickness. With his towel and basin, Jesus is demonstrating the great hospitality of God towards us. But we must be willing. To be on the receiving end of God’s hospitality might mean admitting that we have dirty feet and that the world’s grit clings to us. There are unpleasant, even broken places within us, and we need love, healing, and forgiveness.
The beginning point of spiritual renewal is a willingness to let God in. But often, we will only try this after we have exhausted our self-sufficiency. We will work harder, turn towards perfectionism, drive ourselves. But eventually, we come back to being open and honest with God that we can’t do it alone. We are willing to receive help, ready to be served. I understand, Peter. I want God to be pleased with me, but Jesus, stay away from my feet, please.
Peter then becomes an illustration of the spiritual journey. Soon after, he proclaims that he will never abandon or fall away from Jesus. Jesus gives him a reality check and predicts he will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. When this prediction is fulfilled, Peter is crushed and guilt-ridden. Perhaps Peter realizes how insufficient it is to wash his own feet at that moment. At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter to him. He asks him, “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord.” “Then feed my sheep.” Peter went on to give much to others in his service as an Apostle. But only because he was willing to receive, only when he realized his lack, and that he needed God’s grace to make him whole. Friends, go forth and serve the Lord with gladness. But first, let Jesus wash your feet.