John 13:1-17, 31b-35
When I lived in southeast Texas, I had a good friendship with the secretary of our congregation and her next-door neighbor, who was also a member of the church. The parishioner, whose name is Sharon, has a phobia of cockroaches, which can be a problem in southeast Texas. That area of the great state of Texas is part of Texas’ Gulf Coast, and so the climate is very warm and very humid; all kinds of insects thrive in that kind of climate. The secretary, whose name is Brenda, has no such phobia of cockroaches and other disgusting bugs. And so, when Sharon encounters a roach in her home, she immediately gets on the phone, calls Brenda, and asks the question, “Brenda, how much do you love me?” And Brenda immediately comes over to Sharon’s home with her fly swatter, asks, “Where is it?” and then proceeds to kill said disgusting bug.
Can love be measured by what someone is willing to do for another person? If love can be measured in this way, where does killing a creepy insect for someone fall on the scale? Or, as in my parents’ case, disposing of mice caught in traps for the spouse who is both afraid of and repulsed by mice? And where does washing feet fall on the scale of measuring how much someone loves another person? I’m curious, and I’d like to take a quick poll of the congregation here tonight. Think of the person that you love the most. Now, how many of you would kill a cockroach or some other really frightening bug for the person you love? OK, and how many of you would dispose of a mouse caught in a trap for this person? And finally, how many of you would wash the other person’s feet? I think it’s interesting, because, of those three options, I would find washing the other person’s feet least offensive. And yet, when I suggested we consider doing the rite of foot washing at this service tonight, I was met with a great amount of hesitation. Why do we have no problem walking around in sandals during the summer and letting other people see our feet, but we do have a problem with the idea of someone washing our feet for us?
As I pondered this, I remembered that a couple of times when I’ve been up at Chico Hot Springs, I have gotten a massage. And the first part of the massage is having your feet washed with a warm citrus scrub. It felt so good to have someone else wash my feet with care that I normally don’t take when I wash my own feet. But perhaps this is the difference: while I did talk with the woman as she was washing my feet, I didn’t know her very well. And washing my feet was simply part of her job that she was getting paid for, so there really wasn’t anything too intimate or embarrassing about it. When congregations hold the rite of foot washing, on the other hand, it often means that we are forced to look one another in the eye, and perhaps even to wash the feet of someone whom we don’t like very much. Or even, to have our own feet washed by that same person. Just a little bit awkward, and somewhat frightening if we haven’t been brought up with doing this in the church.
In Jesus’ day, when you were invited to someone’s home, the good host would offer you a basin of water to wash the dust of the road off of your feet before entering the home, but he would not wash your feet himself. If your host were rich enough to own slaves, he might command one of his slaves to wash your feet. So in that culture, it was understood that a person who washed your feet was a slave. So can you imagine how truly stunned the disciples must have been to see their Lord and their Teacher, Jesus, taking on the role of a slave? I think they were all shocked into silence, and Peter was the only one brash enough to take what they were all thinking and speak it out loud. And when Peter protests that Jesus will never wash his feet—after all, Peter did not want his Lord and master demeaning himself to the status of a slave—Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Craig Koester, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary, paraphrases this, “Unless I love you completely, you will not be in relationship with me” (Word of Life, p. 193). In other words, when Jesus takes on the role of a slave and washes his disciples’ feet, he is loving them completely, and he is foreshadowing his death on the cross, where he will more fully show them what being a slave for one’s beloved looks like.
What’s even more interesting about Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Judas has not yet gone out from the meal to make arrangements to betray Jesus, but Jesus knows that Judas is going to do this. And yet, Jesus washes Judas’ feet, showing Judas that, even though he knows what’s going to happen, he still loves him. The response of good to the evil in this world is not to retaliate and to give evil back for evil, but instead, to respond with utter love and devotion in an unexpected act of service.
And after this unexpected and disturbing act of service is completed, Jesus says to his disciples, “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.” If we 21st century Americans can’t even bear the intimacy of literally washing one another’s feet, how are we to metaphorically carry out such selfless acts of love and devotion towards one another? How are we to make ourselves vulnerable, even in the company of people who might betray us?
As Jesus said, he is the one who sets the example for us, first by washing the disciples’ feet, then by going to the cross to die for us. That is something that is impossible for us human beings to live up to. But as we live in this world, Jesus will give us opportunities to humble ourselves and to show selfless love for one another, even for those who would hate us and betray us. When we respond to evil with love and service rather than with fear and retaliation, then we truly show the world that we are disciples of the one who gave his life for us. When we show selfless love to one another, we build up the community, which again bears witness to the world of how much Jesus loves us. So perhaps in the future, we might begin by physically washing one another’s feet. Amen.