Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.
When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
“No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
John 13:3-9 (CEB)
Washing each others feet is something we have little to know context for in the modern world. In fact, if you started washing someones feet when they came into your house you would probably be considered crazy and having not concept of boundaries and personal space. Of course, in the world of the Ancient Near East, washing of feet was a regular and necessary occurrence. Since walking was the dominant mode of transportation and paved roads were a rare occurrence, ones feet could get very dirty. Tracking all that dirt into someone’s house, especially if you were attending a party or meal and they had worked all day preparing and cleaning, was considered very rude. If you have ever heard a sermon on this passage, you’ll know that the washing of feet was typically servants job. When Jesus takes off his robes, kneels down and proceeds to wash the feet of his disciples he is taking the role of a servant. This is much of the reason for Peter’s initial disapproval. However, something else struck me as I was reading this story again this year.
How both deeply personal and communal Jesus act of washing the disciples feet is.
First of all, when Jesus chooses to wash the feet of his disciples he is serving them in a very personal level. He gets down in front of them, one by one, and washes their feet. I imagine he also looks each and every one of them in the eye, probably calls them by their name and welcomes them to the evening. I don’t know if you’re like me but, someone touching my feet is a deeply personal experience. Heck, even someone seeing my bare feet seems a bit personal. Here we have Jesus addressing the disciples personally and taking the time to clean their unique feet and removing dirt from between their toes and under their nails. By washing their feet, Jesus acknowledges them as individuals and works to reveal their true self. Jesus does not clean their feet to make the disciples something they are not, Jesus cleans their feet to help reveal who they are underneath all the dirt from the road. Jesus does not tell them they need new clothes, a new leg or even a pedicure. The dirt was not a part of who they really were, the dirt was picked up moving through their lives and obscured who they were. I’m sure it is possible that some of the disciples intentionally got their feet dirty and enjoyed rolling around in the mud…but more than likely their feet got dirty because the road they walked was dirty.
Secondly, Jesus washing his disciples feet is a communal act. Basically, having ones feet washed was probably the price of admission to the meal that evening. Nobody wanted to sit next to someone with dirty feet and no one wanted to be the one person with dirty feet at the table. To take part in the meal, to be a part of the community that evening, it was expected that one have their feet washed. On a more spiritual level, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” So, for the disciples to be a part of the evening and to enjoy being a part of this thing Jesus was about to inaugurate, one was expected to have their feet washed and to be clean. I’m not going to wade into the deep theological waters of being “clean” (ritually/spiritually/etc.) and what it means for Jesus to do that. Lets just simply say that Jesus sets the stage for the disciples need to be washed and for them to in turn serve others in that way. Being washed invites the disciples to sit at the table with the others who have been washed. The washing does not transform them or change their identity, but it does allow them to identify with the community gathered and freely sit at the table set for them. Loud mouths, betrayers, young and old, men and women all found themselves washed and welcomed to the table.
So, this act of Jesus washing his disciples feet is deeply personal and communal at the same time. For those of us today who may find ourselves gathered with our church community around a table this has deep meaning. It means that when we sit down, we are acknowledging our “washed” status among the community of others who have been “washed.” But, it also means that we can look across the table (or the chairs or pews around us) and see people welcomed to the table. We have been “washed” to reveal who we really are and we have been “washed” to join the community. We have been “washed” to help others find who they really are and we have been “washed” to welcome others into the community.
Take some time this evening, if you are gathered with your community, to truly see someone the way Jesus would have seen them. If you have the opportunity, serve them and call them by name. Acknowledge that they have been loved and washed by Jesus and you are glad they are their at the table with you.