If your house is anything like ours, you’ve got a place for towels, perhaps a linen closet or a spot in the cupboard under the sink. Of course, we have those towels that we can pull out in a pinch for guests—when we used to have guests, that is—those we’ve deemed nice enough for a guest to dry themselves after washing up. But then we also have those towels that are ratty and torn, strings of fabric hanging off them, perhaps stained in a few places or bleached out in others. We don’t pull those out unless it’s to wipe up a bad spill on the floor or to get mud off the dog’s feet after a long walk. Our towels have been used after a dip in the ocean, or cleaning up after one of the kids had an accident. They’ve come in handy cleaning up spilled milk, or wiping of a forehead after a hard run. They have swaddled babies and have stemmed the flow of blood from a bad cut.
A sermon based on John 13.
And John tells us that on the last night of his earthly life, as Jesus is hosting his closest friends to an intimate meal, he strips down to his underclothes and wraps a towel around his waist. He takes a jug of water and a basin, and then gets down on his knees and begins to wash the dirt and grime caked on his friends’ feet. Once he cleans their feet with that water, he dries them with that towel wrapped around his waist. Prof. Mary Louise Bringle suggests that in some of the oldest Jewish commentaries on Scripture, the Midrash, “not even a Hebrew slave was expected to perform such menial service.” People normally would wash their own feet, and often when guests arrived a host would present them with all that they might need to do so. But for Jesus to strip down, take up that towel, and gently wash their feet? It was nearly shameful.
And you can hear that in Peter’s response: “You will never wash my feet!” Imagine any place other than at a Maundy Thursday service—or perhaps a day spa—where you might let someone else even close to your feet with a pitcher of warm water, a bowl, and a towel. Visualize being at your favorite restaurant, or maybe a store you like to frequent, and then a worker there coming over to you to offer you this added service. Now imagine it’s your boss, or one of our Senators, some other congressional leader or even just a close friend. We’d all likely push that person away with a similar sort of response. “No, that’s quite all right, my feet are just fine, thank you. No need for you to do that.”
In her commentary, Prof. Bringle gives this analysis for that sort of response: “Like Peter, many of us resist vulnerability, preferring to remain in control, to choose what gifts we will gratefully accept. Yet a fundamental fact of our humanness is our dependency: as infants, we all submitted to being wiped clean by someone else; in illness or old age, many of us will confront such dependency again.” She continues, “Jesus points out that those who cannot with grace receive the gift of physical cleaning are scarcely in a position to receive the even more humbling cleansing of sin that occurs in his even more humiliating death on a cross. It is worth pondering what other gifts we are too proud to let ourselves be given.” Jesus said it this way, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
If you were to ask my family, they would be able to tell you I don’t naturally gravitate toward vulnerability; I like being in control. What I don’t like is asking for help. Due to difficult experiences throughout my life, I’ve found it hard to be open, and so rarely admit my need for or dependency on others. Put it another way, I’m right there with you, Peter. And while that sort of response could be seen as humility—“Jesus, there’s no reason you need to do this menial job, I can clean my own feet”—it really just covers up my own desire to appear to have it all together, to be self-reliant. To not need anyone else. How was it that Prof. Bringle put it: “Those who cannot with grace receive the gift of physical cleaning are scarcely in a position to receive the even more humbling cleansing of sin that occurs in [Jesus’] even more humiliating death on a cross.”
Peter and I and others like us are scarcely in a position to receive that gift of love. Because that’s what forgiveness and the cleansing of sin actually is. Jesus looking at us and seeing the parts of our lives that hurt, where there remain open wounds, then his reaching out and grabbing a towel and begins to wipe away the mess, and dry the tears from our eyes, and wash the dirt and grime from our souls and lead us to a new way of life. A life where we depend on the care and affection of others. Where we express the same thing to others.
You can hear it, can’t you, in Jesus words? “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love exemplified in our giving—and receiving—of service to each other. Love shown by taking a towel and setting out to clean feet. To a deep intimacy of respect and concern for another. To see them as they truly are—human beings that are worn and tired and some times tossed about the changes and chances of this life. People needing to know and experience that deep care and love from Jesus.
As the drama of this week continues to unfold, I am struck that Jesus’ final teaching focused squarely on that love. On our need both to receive it and to offer it to others. I want to know that love more fully. I want to have my share with Jesus, to be a part of all that he is doing in our world. He has established his kingdom among us, and it includes the symbol of simply picking up a towel. Will we do that to wash another person’s feet? And will we let others use it to dry our feet too? I know that tonight we cannot do that here in this place as we remain apart, but I encourage all of us to look for the ways we can both put this simple act of grace and love into practice, and graciously receive it as well. For acts such as these are the foundation of that realm that Jesus ushered in through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. May it be so.