It’s possible to think about a story like the one we just heard and look at it in a very matter-of-fact way, like it was an interesting sculpture at an exhibit of Christian art. These days, your first thought might be, “Whoa, that’s not good social distancing.”
Or you might be this guy. In my imagination, he works for a large interdenominational ministry, and he’s been asked to find a painting this size for a meeting room in their headquarters.
He’s thinking, “Well, it’s certainly Christian enough. But what I really like is the implication that Jesus washes our feet, and instead of competing for members or debating theological fine points, our various denominations ought to be washing each other’s feet; maybe even loving each other! …Of course, most of them will probably think I only picked it to match the carpet.”
It IS possible to see or hear a story like John 13 and never see ourselves in it. “It is interesting, but we live in an age of computers, smart phones, COVID-19, and… and socks! A 2000 year old Passover foot washing doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
Well, maybe it can remove some of the strangeness and distance if we look at a few details.
Take the actual act of washing someone’s feet, for instance. I’ve done it a few times. The most successful was when our church reenacted John 13 at a Maundy Thursday service. This is me, 20 years ago playing the role of Jesus, washing Simon Peter’s feet. He was played by Tom Wheele, and one thing I remember is that he – and all the guys playing disciples – arrived at church that night with (can you guess?) incredibly clean feet. I bet all 12 of ‘em used Brillo pads and bleach just before they came.
I would wash one disciple’s feet, then he’d tell the congregation his story while I did the same for the next man. When we were done, I couldn’t help but notice that the basin of water I’d used for all 24 feet was as clean as when I started.
Still, as a Maundy Thursday service, it worked. Certainly it worked better than when – many years earlier at a different church – I was part of a Sunday morning foot washing for the w-h-o-l-e congregation.
We told folks it was coming weeks ahead of time and assured them participation would be voluntary. When the day arrived, we had about 170 people in worship. We sang a hymn, read John 13, and then six elders waited to wash people’s feet at six different foot washing stations, which turned out to be two more than we needed. Only four people came up. One of them was a visitor who apologized and went back to her seat when she remembered she had nylons on. Two of them were teenage girls with beautiful feet and freshly painted toenails. The last one was my senior minister who I think only went up because it had been his idea.
At the Monday morning post mortem, we agreed foot washing was apparently not a modern day thing. At First Christian we once finessed the problem by having a hand washing ceremony. That worked okay. But the BEST modern re-enactment I’ve ever heard of is one Pope Francis did. His predecessor once washed the feet of 12 priests, but Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates in an Italian prison. One was a woman, one was a Muslim, and all of them were guilty.
Now I’m not a Catholic. In fact, I’m a married minister with children, proudly part of a denomination that has female ministers, but still…, that is impressive.
But even that’s probably not enough to help us see ourselves in this picture.
Maybe it would help if we looked at WHY foot washing was such a big deal back then. For starters, unlike modern people who have socks & shoes, and drive most places, and use sidewalks when we don’t; everybody in Israel who wasn’t rich walked.
And what did they walk on? Well, the Hebrew word for road means “a beaten worn out path.” When Jesus journeyed throughout Israel, he used dirt tracks hardened by countless others before him. The Romans laid down stone and built what we’d recognize as a proper road. The Jews? Not so much.
And then we have to consider ancient footwear. In Jesus’ day, everyone wore sandals. They protected the bottom of your feet, but bruising a toe was an everyday occurrence, and getting your feet dirty started as soon as you stepped outside.
By the way, we’re not just talking dirt. Oxen, horses, donkeys, camels, and sheep all used the same roads and left a lot of you-know-what. Carts would squash and spread the piles, and walkers couldn’t avoid stepping on all that aromatic treasure. Feet weren’t just dirty, they were disgusting.
Before you entered someone’s house, you were expected to wash your feet. And a good host would provide water. The first (but not nearly the last) time it happens in the Bible is Genesis 18:4. Abraham sees three strangers walking toward him and says, “Please, don’t pass by. A little water will be brought so you can wash your feet and rest under the tree.” Then he runs inside to get food while they wash themselves. If a family was rich enough to own slaves, the job would fall to the bottom servant on the totem pole. It was disgusting, but it needed to get done. With that as context, let’s look again at today’s picture, not from a distance of 2000 years, but as though we were there, participating as it unfolds.
To help with that, I chose this guy. I don’t know who the artist thought he was, but in my imagination he’s the disciple named Simon. We know very little about Simon except – probably to differentiate him from Simon Peter – he was better known by his nickname, “Simon the Zealot.”
Simon (Dan Pritchett): It’s true. I was a Zealot in my teens and twenties. Our motto was, “We have no king but God!” and “Destroy the Roman Empire and KILL all who collaborate with it!”
Does that sound vicious to you? Then you should know: Roman soldiers crucified my uncle, and Jewish tax collectors confiscated money from us to pay those soldiers’ salaries! That’s why there was a time when I knew I would die fighting “for the glory of God and the liberation of Israel!”
But it wasn’t a Roman sword that took me out. I was running over a field and my foot got caught in a hole. My ankle shattered. I spent years walking with a limp, and with yet another thing to rage about: the unfairness of the world. …Then I went to hear an itinerant rabbi named Jesus. A couple of my relatives thought he might be the Messiah who would lead the fight against Rome.
Unfortunately, the very first thing I heard him say was, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” (Matthew 5:44)
Oh, that made me see red! When he finished speaking, I hobbled up, ready to accuse him of being a traitor to our people. But before I could say anything, he looked me in the eye and said, “Peace be with you.” He touched my shoulder; …and the pain in my foot – pain that had been a constant companion for three years – disappeared, as did just a little of the rage in my heart. He moved on, but I just stood there, stunned. When I finally snapped out of it, I found I could walk normally again.
I don’t know what you would do after something like that, but I decided to follow the man and learn more. I started to fall under the spell of his stories. I saw him heal countless others. I was even in a boat during a fierce storm when I’d swear he commanded the wind and waves to calm down, and they did!
After that, I still didn’t know quite what to make of Jesus, but I was proud to be one of his disciples.
Or at least I was, until he invited Matthew the tax collector to join us. I had let go of most of my rage by then, but it was bad enough when Jesus had good things to say about Samaritans. I was NOT ready to accept a Roman-collaborating tax collector as a brother. …The others told me Matthew had reformed; his repentance was real.
I had my doubts.
And now, here we are at the Passover meal. And Jesus…, well, I’m pretty sure he’s NOT the Messiah I was looking for. (At least, he’s made it clear he won’t be leading an army against Rome.) But he IS…something – a teacher, a healer, a miracle worker, a man of God.
He’s our leader. None of us really understand him, but I think we’d all follow wherever he led. That’s why it was so stunning – a few moments ago – when he wrapped that towel around his waist and announced he’d be washing all our feet!
I’m with Simon Peter on this one: it’s not right for so great a man to do such a humble task. My ankle isn’t crippled since Jesus healed it, but both my feet (like everyone else’s) are disgusting. I don’t like touching them myself; so I squirmed when he massaged and cleaned and dried them.
Jesus may be the most “manly man” I’ve ever met: storms obey him and powerful religious leaders are afraid of him, …but his touch was tender; even …loving.
When he finished, he announced that, in the future, he expected us to do the same for each other. As soon as he said it, I couldn’t help but look at Matthew. (sigh) Jesus, I love you, but – man! – you do ask a LOT.
Dave: Would you pray with me? Dear God, we are distracted and worried about the pandemic facing us; we’re anxious about our health (physical and economic), and on behalf of friends, family and even the whole world we’re frightened about what the future might hold. But we know that Jesus – on a night when he knew the cross was only a few hours away – took time to share a simple message about the importance of serving.
Of course we ask for the gift of calm reassurance in the midst of trying times. But we also ask that you help us remember: even when COVID-19 is changing everything, it’s our responsibility – our privilege – to love one another. This we lift to You in Your Son’s name.