Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I think that throughout the time of his ministry, Jesus expressed that love most by teaching his own about the kingdom. Time is short now; just enough for one last lesson.
Most years during Lent I spend some time listening to music about Jesus’ passion; music that became important to me when I was young. So thinking about the disciples at the Last Supper brought to my mind the song from Jesus Christ Superstar where the disciples, a little drunk maybe, are reflecting on what must have been a difficult and bewildering trip to Jerusalem. Jesus has been dropping troubling hints along the way about how their world is about to get permanently upended, hints it seems they aren’t ready to hear. In the version of the last supper told in Luke, the disciples have even been arguing among themselves about which of them was greatest. In Tim Rice’s lyrics, they know something is going on, but maybe don’t quite want to face up to it yet:
Look at all my trials and tribulations
Sinking in a gentle pool of wine
Don’t disturb me now I can see the answers
Till this evening is this morning life is fine
But of course, Jesus does disturb them now. He doesn’t leave them muse alone in their differences. Instead, He gets up from the table, ties a towel around himself, and begins to wash the disciple’s feet, and blow their minds.
When I started preparing for this sermon about a month ago, I started Googling about foot washing, reading passages in the scriptures that mention foot washing, and references to foot washing in other writings from the first century. What I wanted to understand was the different kinds of things that foot washing might mean to the disciples and to the writer of John’s Gospel. Much of what I found was what I expected, pages about hygiene, hospitality, and humble service. But as I read about the practice of foot washing, who did this, how and when it was done, I found myself getting drawn deeper and deeper into the story, and finding many layers of meaning I didn’t expect to find at first.
On one basic level, foot washing is an act of hospitality of a host towards guests. Most people in ancient Palestine wore open footwear, and after walking over dusty roads fouled with the waste of animals and maybe even household garbage, it’s easy to imagine on arriving at someone’s home, one’s feet would benefit from washing. This need increases if we consider that people in ancient Palestine didn’t dine sitting on chairs at a table like we do. Now, the writer of John wrote in Greek, and had the disciples at the last supper eating in Hellenistic style: reclining on cushions, rugs, or mats on a couch or the floor next to a low table, making really dirty feet potentially very awkward. And then too, anyone who does a lot of walking or hiking knows how tired your feet can get, and how a good soak can feel just heavenly. So, offering water to visitors so that they could wash their feet was an act of hospitality, a way to welcome someone and make them comfortable.
Closely connected to hospitality is the layer of deeply humble service. In wealthy households with servants or slaves, it’s possible that one of these might have washed the feet of visitors. Servants and slaves were common in the ancient world, but of course, most people didn’t have them. I imagine that for the disciples, the more common experience in visiting a friend’s home would have been that someone, probably one of the women in the household, or perhaps one of the children, would have brought water, and the guests would have washed their own feet.
A lot of the references to foot washing I found at first talked about how washing another person’s feet was something assigned to the lowest ranking person in a household, the lowest servant or slave, or the youngest person in the household if there weren’t servants. Surely this image was what seems to have shocked Peter into saying “You will never wash my feet.” But of course, this is exactly what Jesus was getting at, to set the example that greatness is to be found not in lording it over others, but in being the servant of all. For the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. I could easily pause here, and dwell a while longer on the glory of humble service and the importance of making another welcome; maybe not a bad idea in a world half crazed with hubris and prone to ignore the comfort even of loved ones, much less the needs of strangers and outcasts. But as I kept searching, I found hints of yet more levels of meaning that helped me think in new ways about what kind of service this was that Jesus was performing.
The first reference to foot washing in the Hebrew Scriptures, reading in narrative order, is the story where angels visit Abraham at the oaks of Mamre to tell him that he will have a son. Genesis 18:4 reads “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” This is the familiar pattern of hospitality, someone brings water, and the visitors can wash their own feet. But the version of the story in the Testament of Abraham, a first century AD Jewish pseudepigraphic book, goes further. “Then Abraham went forward and washed the feet of the commander-in-chief, Michael. Abraham’s heart was moved and he wept over the stranger” (T. Abr. 2.9). Later in the book, when God sends angels to prepare Abraham for his death, Abraham tells his son Isaac to wash their feet. Recognizing that the visitors aren’t mortal, Isaac bursts into tears, which turn to gemstones as they fall. Tears in humble, heartfelt welcoming of holy visitors reminds me of the woman in Luke’s Gospel, who perceiving who Jesus was, washes his feet with her hair and tears. We’ve moved on from a simple act of humble hospitality into deeper waters.
I feel like the stories of Abraham and Isaac washing the feet of angels, bring us onto Holy ground, and connections to much more than physical cleanliness or worldly hospitality. God commands Moses from the burning bush to take off his sandals because he is standing on Holy Ground. In the Book of Exodus, when God is giving instructions on maintaining the tent of meeting where the ark of the covenant was kept, He tells Moses: “You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.” Take heed; one has to prepare when approaching Holy places.
The cleanliness that God desires is of course purity of heart; and this is what Jesus had on his mind in washing the disciples’ feet, in addition to hospitality and humble service. And Peter, once he gets over the shock of Jesus humbling himself, picks up on the need to be spiritually clean. Peter with his usual eagerness wants to go one step further than the priests who wash their hands and feet, and asks Jesus to bathe his head too.
I find Jesus’ reply a little enigmatic: “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.” That puzzled me a bit. But, I wonder if it’s that Peter has been too enthusiastic by half, and is betraying a hidden fear that at some basic level, he is spiritually deficient, as if somehow his baptism didn’t take. I think that maybe Jesus is saying to Peter, no, you really have changed, you don’t need to be baptized again. But the road is hard and full of grime; here let me wash the dirt away from your feet and renew your soul.
We’re all only ever baptized once, but we do renew our vows every year. And we renew them together. In fact, when we make our Baptismal vows the first time, whether on our own as adults, or our parents do so for us as infants, we don’t do it alone. In the liturgy for baptism in the Book of Common Prayer, the celebrant asks the congregation: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And the congregation answers, “we will.” At the end, we welcome the newly baptized saying “We receive you into the household of God.”
Once Jesus has finished washing the disciples’ feet, he returns to the table and finishes his lesson: “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” And he adds “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” By washing his disciple’s feet, Jesus has welcomed them into his household. Now it’s up to us to do the same.
Wandering through all these layers of hospitality, humble service, welcoming angels and Christ, spiritual cleanliness and renewal, I feel like I arrive at a place where Jesus is telling his disciples that from here on, they must be family for each other. Not just companions, or even friends, much less rivals, they are to be family. They’re going to need each other, because their world is about to get completely upended, and their lives are going to get a whole lot harder. They’re going to need each other’s help to wash off the dirt of the road from feet and hearts. Maybe they’ll have days so dark they forget their own goodness, and need their family who can still see and welcome the Christ in them.
Just as Jesus told the disciples to be family, we need to be family for each other, too. Just like our feet get dirty every time we step outside, our hearts get sullied in the stress of day-to-day living. We live in a world that is competitive, unkind, ungracious, shabby, even cruel. It’s easy to feel like we get the grime of contempt or the dust of despair all over us. It can be hard to remember that there is anything good in us at all. I think there are days when I have so much gunk from the road on me that I forget who I really am, and need my brothers and sisters to see and greet the Christ in me, even if I can’t. The road is hard, but we’re not supposed to walk it alone.
Godspell is another of my favorite albums to listen to at this time of year, and one of my favorite songs since my high school days is By my Side. The singer asks Jesus where he is going, and can he take her with him.
Oh, please take me with you.
Let me skip the road with you,
I can dare myself
I’ll put a pebble in my shoe, and watch me walk.
I shall call the pebble dare.
We will talk together, about walking.
Dare shall be carried
And when we both have had enough,
I will take him from my shoe singing,
“Meet your new road.”
Though I loved this song the most, as a kid, I puzzled over the words. I struggled with why anyone would put a pebble in their shoe, and what that meant. I know that on one hand, it’s a metaphor for the walk of faith. But it also reminds me of traveling with another person in a relationship. It isn’t always easy! It can be hard, awkward, frustrating, even painful sometimes. It’s a challenge to keep it up, and if you know that, if maybe you’ve been hurt a few times too many, it might seem easier not to; like something you really have to dare yourself to do. Certainly it takes work and commitment, and maybe some risk. But I know if I don’t dare to take that risk, I’m left walking the road alone, with no one to help me wash off the dust and remember who I am.
I hope that as we wash each other’s feet tonight, we can affirm that we are family, greet the Christ in each other, and renew the essential goodness in each of us.
We are pilgrims on a journey, and companions on the road; we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christlight for you in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joy and sorrow, till we’ve seen this journey through.
Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
I dare you.