In a matter of time, the soldiers would come for Jesus. And in less than 24 hours he’d be crucified. This is where the 13th chapter of the gospel of John situates the reader.
Being truly God, he knew what would come. Because he was truly human, such knowledge would be agonizing as we would see in Gethsemane. But, at present, with hours still ahead of him, what Jesus does during the last gathering he shared with those closest to him -the men he’d be teaching for three years, calls for attention. He washed their feet.
I did not grow up in the church nor in a Christian home. Although my grandmother became a believer late in life and she shared her faith with me as a child, it wouldn’t be until many years later, during my freshman year in college that I would come to faith in Jesus.
At the end of that first year in university, a group of friends travelled to Florida for a week-long Inter-Varsity retreat, where we joined several other university chapters from the south-east region. We studied from the gospel of John while learning to pray for and serve our campuses.
Each day we’d attend expository preaching in the main hall. The study was on John 13-15. Later in the day, we would gather in smaller groups to share and pray about what we’d learned.
One afternoon, arriving to the smaller room assigned to my campus group, I noticed on the carpet a bucket with water and some towels next to it. I thought perhaps the cleaning crew had left it there to clean after we were done with the room.
Soon after the rest of our group arrived, we opened in prayer, and our Inter-Varsity leader explained we were going to do something different. She took the bucket and said we were going to take turns washing the feet of the person to our right and pray over them and tell them what we were grateful for in their lives. Silence took over the room as we glanced over one another feeling a little awkward.
The experience is forever seared in my memory. It was Scripture in action. It brought home in a most personal way what we’d been studying just a few hours before.
There is a certain vulnerability to the act. Even in warm sunny Florida where the retreat took place, there was a level of discomfort in taking off our sandals and tennis shoes. Feet are not particularly attractive. They are a functional body part which supports the whole, enabling us to stand and to enjoy walking and running. While they are also a body part that gets dirty, smelly, and tired, they accurately embody the limitations of our design. We are wonderfully made, and we are also breakable.
We recoil feeling exposed at the thought of showing them and having someone touch them and wash them unless you are paying for a pedicure or a foot massage. But as an act of intentional affection, it’s awkward. We don’t naturally feel inclined to do it nor welcome it with ease.
In the time of Jesus, washing feet was customary. In a culture that moved mostly on foot, where there were dirt roads, it was a hygienic necessity. For higher class families, it was common to have a slave perform that service for guests. For more modest homes, the host would provide the water and guests would wash their own feet. It was considered the lowliest task. Jesus takes the place of a lowly servant.
Situating ourselves in the chronology of the text, there are only five chapters before Jesus is taken before Pilate, questioned, beaten, and crucified. It’s tempting to interpret that time is running out, and thus imprint a sense of haste to the next actions and words of Jesus. Yet, nothing of the sort is revealed in the text. On the contrary, the passage begins with a sense of completion, a right tempo, to the timing that brings Jesus to this seemingly awkward action:
“…when Jesus knew the hour had come to depart out of this world, he loved them to the end. (…) knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God (…) he laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13: 1-5 ESV).
This is a man who knew the timing of what would come, and in complete tranquillity of mind and spirit chose his next action with intention: to perform the task reserved for the lowliest servant. As he began to undress that he may have more mobility and not get his outer garments wet, it’s not hard to imagine their shock. To watch him kneel before each man and proceed to wash their dusty, tired feet, as was customary, before eating supper – what was he doing?!
Indeed, what was Jesus doing?
Washing feet is getting into the messiness of someone; it’s literally coming into contact with dirt from someone else and rolling up our sleeves to love them. In this passage we behold this extraordinary man, embrace the humblest ordinariness of the human condition. Consistent with his life thus far, he forgoes his rightful place, his glory, and becoming lower than all, takes on the task beneath everyone present. What an accurate prequel to what he will do on the cross a few hours later.
Before John transitions into the next part of the narrative, we read what Jesus said after washing his disciples’ feet. It’s a compelling statement that humbles the soul and calls to action:
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them,
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12-17 ESV)
That last line, verse 17, grabs me by the heart. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” That double conditional invites the believer to share in a promise. You are blessed if knowing what He’s done; you do likewise. It implies action. It’s not contingent on our feelings, but rather a deliberate decision on our part to humble ourselves to love others, in ways which will not be comfortable or natural for us. To do what we’ve seen modelled.
What might this mean for each one of us? A personal example for me was my mentor telling me things that were hard to hear, because she saw my need for Truth greater than her fear of my reaction. It’s not charity work. It’s costly and selfless and otherworldly; like the cross.
It might be doing something we consider beneath our station, because God is more interested in our character and obedience, than He is in our position.
Who has washed your feet by embracing your mess though costly to them? What’s been the result in your life? Whose feet is God asking you to wash? Pray and ask Him to show you.
Why wash feet? Because we want to be imitators of Christ, that we may know him, and others may see him. And because there is blessing in obedience.