Scriptures: John 13:1-15; John 12:1-8
A pastor I knew in seminary told about an experience he had
as a child. One day he and a neighbor kid were playing in his yard hitting dandelions with a golf club. On one of his swings, the pastor said he swung so hard the club flew out of his hands and hit the neighbor kid in the head. The neighbor kid grabbed his head and ran home crying. The pastor said he stood there for a moment in shock, then he ran into his house, charged up the stairs, took off his clothes, and started taking a bath in the middle of the day. That's when his mother knew something was wrong.
There has always been a connection between guilt and dirt.
In Psalm 51 after being confronted over his affair with Bathsheba, David says to God, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." David felt he needed a bath. He says in verse 7: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow." Then in verse 10: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me." Doing wrong not only makes us feel guilty, it makes us feel unclean.
Which is the key to our scripture reading from John 13.
This is not just a story about dirty feet. Dirty feet were certainly a problem in ancient Israel. The roads were made of dirt, often mixed with the droppings of various animals. People wore sandals or went barefoot, so at the end of the day their feet were pretty gross. It was not unusual for a host to set out a basin of water that guests could use to wash their feet before entering a house. Sometimes a slave would wash their feet for them. But notice what happens in this story. Jesus does not wash the disciples' feet before dinner. He washes their feet during dinner. If Jesus was really worried about their dirty feet, he needed to have done this sooner, before they even came to the table. But this is a symbolic action, like many other things Jesus does in John's gospel, so we must look for clues as to what it means.
The first clue is the description of Jesus taking off his
outer robe. Can you guess when that robe appears next in John's gospel? In the story of Jesus' crucifixion, when the soldiers take off Jesus' robe to crucify him. That small, seemingly extraneous detail links the two stories together. Jesus act of washing the disciples' feet is a preview of his dying for them on a cross.
The same is true of Jesus wiping their feet with a towel.
That too seems like a small, extraneous detail. But in the previous chapter, Mary anoints Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair, and Jesus praises her for it. Why? Because she is preparing his body for burial. There is a connection between foot-washing, foot-wiping, and Jesus' death.
For his part Peter is appalled when Jesus stoops to wash his
feet. He says, "You shall never wash my feet." I used to think that Peter was embarrassed to have Jesus wash his feet. But I think something more is going on. Peter sees himself as a doer, a giver, the kind of person who helps other people, not the kind of person who needs help.
In 2015 our church sent a mission team to the Dominican
Republic to work with Children of the Nations. [Slide 1] It was a great trip, but in many ways it was also an uncomfortable experience. Not because our hosts were ungracious to us. Quite the contrary. [Slide 2] The Dominican staff of Children of the Nations hosted us at their beautiful compound in Barahona. Over the first weekend they took us to see a waterfall spilling into a tropical pool. [Slide 3] On the way we stopped at an overlook [Slide 4] where we gazed down on this beautiful Caribbean beach where later they took us swimming and sunbathing. On Monday they took us on a tour showing us all the schools they had established [Slide 5] in the communities where they worked. To top it off, they hosted an amazing banquet for us back at the compound featuring favorite dishes of our Dominican hosts. [Slide 6] It was very nice, but by the end of Monday many of us feeling uncomfortable. We had been there three days, and we hadn't done anything. We were supposed to be on a mission trip. We were supposed to be building houses and working with children and making life better for the poor. And here we were feeling like tourists on a cruise ship.
Which, in a way, is how Peter felt. [Slide 7, click 1] He
says to Jesus, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet." But Jesus says to him, [click 2] "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." So then Peter goes to the opposite extreme. [Click 3] He says, "Then wash not only my feet but also my hands and head." In an ironic way Peter is still trying to do something for Jesus. He is trying to show Jesus is zeal. He is trying to show Jesus that he is all in.
But Jesus says, [Slide 8] "One who has bathed does not need
to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean." This is probably the most difficult to understand verse in the passage. I suspect that it is a subtle reference to baptism. Certainly that fits with what Jesus says earlier to Peter when he says, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."
We don't normally think of baptism as washing feet, but there are
interesting similarities. When we are baptized, we are not made clean by the water, we are made clean by Jesus' death for us on the cross. It is not the amount of water that matters. Some churches immerse the whole body in water, and some like us just sprinkle water on the person's head. Peter seems to prefer total immersion. But we are not saved by the amount of water we use when we baptize someone. We are saved by accepting in faith the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. It is a gift of grace given to us once and for all, and only when we receive it as such we will begin to get clean from guilt.
But even then Jesus still has work to do on us. We are washed once
and for all in baptism. But we still need some periodic scrubbing. That's why Jesus says, "Except for the feet." Every day we walk in a world sullied by greed, lust, pride, fear, and resentment. Every week, if not every day, we need to get that stuff washed off our feet and out of our hearts. That's why we still need church and Sunday School and Bible studies and fellowship in a community of faith. But the decisive gift was given when Jesus died for us on the cross. We cannot earn a relationship to Jesus, even by our zeal. We can only give thanks for it, and try in humble ways to share it with others.
Which brings me to what Jesus says next. After he washes
their feet, Jesus says to his disciples, [Slide 9] "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
Later during our trip to the Dominican Republic we finally
got around to doing some work. We helped put new siding and a new roof on one of the houses in the village. [Slide 10] We were very excited to see it finished.
Jesus, however, makes a crucial point about the order of things.
[Slide 11: Blank] Jesus has to wash us, before we can wash anyone else. If we see this story of Jesus' washing feet simply as an example of how we should serve one another, then the story will end up making you feel more guilty, not less guilty. When have any of us ever done enough for other people? What parents have never guilty about not doing enough for their children? What followers of Jesus have never felt guilty about not doing enough for the poor? How many dirty feet should we be out there washing right now instead of sitting here in this lovely church listening to beautiful music from our choir and organist?
Except . except that if we do not let Jesus clean us up
first, we will never be any good to anyone else. That's the message of this scripture passage. Only those who know they have been forgiven will have the grace to forgive others. Only those who have experienced the depth of Jesus' sacrifice for them will find joy in making sacrifices for others. Only people who have felt accepted by God without earning it will be able to serve others without expecting something in return.
There are some stains, some dirt, that cannot be removed by
any detergent. Only Jesus can get us clean, and only then can we hope to do any cleaning up of the rest of the world.