In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God. Amen.
As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. They lived in one of those classic
Baltimore rowhomes—a narrow house between two others, with its rooms set up one behind the other in a row; a front porch that got washed by the afternoon sun; with two small patches of grass: one in front, one in back.
My grandfather and I had a ritual just before my parents came to pick me up. After dinner,
we’d go into the bathroom, and he would run the water in the clawfoot tub. I’d sit on the edge of the tub, and he would take a washcloth, suds up a bar of Irish Spring soap, and rub away the day-long accumulation of dirt from my feet. Now, I didn’t just have average-dirty feet as a kid. They were downright filthy—black as soil, some days—because I really hated wearing shoes. (Confession: I still do!)
But my grandfather never seemed to care. He would lovingly and carefully wash my feet,
scrubbing between my little toes, making sure the dirt was thoroughly washed away before
drying them, sliding my socks on, and then probably fighting with me for a solid four-and-a-half minutes about having to put on my shoes. But what I remember most is how he did it with such love. My grandfather was completely committed to scrubbing my toes clean—or else my mother might have a fit about my dirty, shoeless feet. Either way, my shoes and socks came off the second I got in the car, ignoring my mother’s much-repeated pleas to keep them on.
When I read this passage, I personally connect with Peter’s words: “You will never wash my
feet.” If I were sitting around that table, I, too, would probably look at Jesus and say,
“Ummm… I don’t think so. I’m good, thanks.” I can’t be alone in thinking that feet are pretty
gross, right? And, sure, we think they’re gross now but I can’t help but imagine how just utterly shocking Jesus and his disciples’ feet must have been. They wore sandals and walked on dusty, dirt roads, or in sun-scorched sand. They sloshed through mud at the riverbank,
accumulating more and more dirt as the day went on. And I’m sure that most of the time, their feet didn’t get nearly enough attention because they were too busy roaming around Galilee.
I sense that Peter and the other disciples reacted so strongly to Jesus’ kneeling down before
them with his towel wrapped around him because they didn’t expect Jesus to do what the
servants normally do. They were accustomed to entering someone’s home and having the
servants undo their sandals and give their toes a scrub, so it made them so uncomfortable
that Jesus might take on this role. Yet again, Jesus is breaking social conventions! I suspect
the disciples felt strange looking down at Jesus. And Jesus replies to their confusion by
saying, “See, this is the example I’m setting for you: that you should wash one another’s feet.”
I expect the disciples had the same response we might tonight: No, the rabbi can’t wash my
feet! They’re gnarly, they’re crusty! That’s a job for servants! Jesus is inviting his followers into a new way of being in the world. Washing the feet of his followers, like so many of his other actions, interrupts the status quo and reverses the roles of society. He couples this shift with an instruction to his disciples, hoping to make his point stick. He says, “Let me give you a new command: Love one another, in the same way I loved you. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Jesus makes the instruction so simple. Love one another. We don’t always have to know why
someone is doing something, just as the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’s motive, but we
are called to love that person anyway. We may not have to actually wash another’s feet, but
we do have to follow the instruction to care for that person fully—to do the most humble thing and care for another’s body, or to care about someone’s suffering, or participate in
someone’s joy. Showing Christ’s love to another can be such a simple thing, such a small
gesture, but to the person on the receiving end, it could mean the world.