I was 21 when I first traveled to India with a group of undergrads. A highlight of that trip included a service visit to the Sisters of Charity House, Mother Teresa’s well-known ministry in Kolkata. I remember many sights, smells and sounds from that time, but chief among them was a photo of Mother Teresea’s feet. With Pastor Torgerson’s help I’ll show it to you here.
Upon first glance I wondered, “Had she contracted leprosy?” for I knew of her care for lepers. “Did she have an accident?” To my surprise I learned Teresa’s feet were deformed by her own choosing. A sister of the House explained to our student group, “Mother’s feet were misshapen because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone here, and Mother didn’t want anyone else to stuck with the worst pair, so she dug through what was left for herself. Her shoes were always mismatched and too small. And years of doing that deformed her feet.” Years of loving her neighbor as herself reckoned her handicapped.
Mother Teresa’s feet are famous because her life confounds the values of our culture, the narcissism, the materialism. Another story about feet does the same thing, our reading for today. It too overturns common views of greatness and quite uncomfortably redefines for us the meaning of love.
At the very beginning of chapter 13 we’re told Jesus “knew his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” With the footwashing we’re at a tipping point. You’ll notice today and in the weeks to come, everything goes into slow motion in John’s Gospel. Whereas the previous twelve chapters have covered roughly three years of Jesus’ ministry, the next five chapters will tell the story of one night – the night he was betrayed. And notice what we’re told about Jesus’ perspective at this point, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” To the end. That’s powerful language, isn’t it? Incidentally in the Greek it is the same phrase that Jesus utters while hanging on the cross, “It is finished.” Christ’s immense love of his disciples and of you and me leads him to give it all, though we be far from deserving.
Now before we look more closely at this powerful passage I want to place it in context and recap the chapter before it, that we didn’t read. Just six days before this footwashing, Mary, the sister of the now-risen Lazarus, washes and anoints Jesus’ feet with valuable oil. We’re told she was saving the oil for Jesus’ burial, which would have been a standard custom among Ancient Near Eastern families. Here again, as in the story of Lazarus’ resurrection, we see how close Jesus is to Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. And don’t miss this, as sometimes we wrongfully assume Jesus didn’t have need of friends; that in his strength and clear call he moved in ministry autonomously. We might also mistakenly regard his 12 disciples as his closest companions, when in fact women like Martha and Mary were incredibly dear to him and played critical roles in Jesus’ public ministry. And John 12 is no exception. It is Mary who symbolically prepares Jesus for his death by washing and anointing his feet. Now, the Jewish tradition of anointing with oil was also reserved for Kings before they ascended to the throne. And of course this isn’t lost on John when he’s writing to us. Jesus is washed and anointed as one prepared to die, and in his death made King of all Kings.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the gravity of Jesus’ own cleansing. Surely he didn’t need to be washed and anointed by Mary. The Son of God came, after all, to serve rather than to be served. And yet, Jesus delights in Mary’s sacrifice and with gratitude accepts her humble gift of service.
There are some among us this morning humbly serving in demanding, sacrificial ways, who like Jesus need to receive care from a dear friend. I’m speaking to you spouses and children who tirelessly care for an aging mate or parent with memory loss. You know the fatigue of providing 24-7 care. I’m speaking to you siblings of a special needs kiddos; you know what it feels like to take a backseat so your sister or brother can get what they need. I’m speaking to you young mom and dads. You know what it’s like to crash at the end of a day of giving, giving, giving. I’m speaking to any of you who know the cost of the vocation that is caregiving. In Jesus’ own story serving is accompanied by receiving. Notice how even God-in-the-flesh allowed his beloved friend to serve him, and how it blessed him and equipped him to continue in his ministry. So, a “Where Faith Meets Life” question for some of us may be – In my caregiving how can I allow others to care for me? Maybe that’s you this morning?
In all honesty, it’s not really me. I’m typically inclined to serve to a point, but not usually at my own expense. Maybe that’s you. To use the example of Mother Teresa’s challenging witness, I want others to have shoes, yes, but I also happily own shoes that I like and that fit, so-to-speak, and many pairs at that. Ask me to meet the need of my neighbor with my Birkenstocks, with my own Danksos in return for one pair on what’s left on the Goodwill rack? Are you kidding? Now it’s easy to blow off illustrations like this because, well … you’re not Mother Teresea and neither am I. But I’m not so sure today’s text lets us off so easily, because the worthy example of John 13 makes one thing perfectly clear – Love looks like sacrificial service. It does look like having less so others may have more.
Here Jesus breaks all social conventions by bowing down before those he leads, washing the filthiest and culturally most degrading part of their bodies, their feet. Why the feet? And that’s part of Peter’s question in the aftermath, right, “Why not also the hands and the head?”
Imagine a day in the life of a typical 1st century Israelite. You wake up, having slept on a dusty floor mat. You put on your sandals and the clothes you wore the day before and along with the cattle, sheep, donkeys who share the road with you, you walk across town to fetch the morning’s water. You return to your modest dirt-floor home and use the water to wash — your head, your hands, your face. But not your feet, for the moment you leave for a day’s work they’ll simply become dirty again.
But when you entered the home of a dignitary, or someone highly esteemed, you washed your feet. Wealthy residences would have provided a female slave to help you with this task. But surely no free person would wash another free person; and certainly no master teacher would serve his or her students in this way. Imagine showing one of your bosses, teachers, or mentors your bunions or toe jam. Yuck, right? No way! I’ll be straight up – there are so many things I respect about Pastor Aune, but there’s no way I’m letting him see, let alone touch my feet! And this is why Peter’s response seems sensible. “You will never wash my feet!” he asserts. Yet Jesus does, and reminds Peter and the disciples, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
Church, I wonder, about the last part of this statement. Do you and I know what Jesus has done for us? Do we really know, here (head) and here (heart)?
In our Word for today Jesus explains what he’s done: he has washed us; made us clean. Interestingly, the word for “clean” in verse 10 is the same word for “prune” in chapter 15, where the “Father” is said to prune fruitless branches from the vine, that the plant might bear more fruit. God cleans us by pruning us. Yet so often we’re ashamed by our meager harvest, aren’t we, and tune into that self-condemning question, “Ah, what have I done for God, really?” We so quickly focus on what we aren’t. And like Peter, we seek to hide the dirt and filth of our lives. But none of this surprises, scares or repulses God. What we see as shame or filth, God sees as an opportunity. And this friends is what he’s done for us; he has delivered us from condemnation – including that which we bring upon ourselves – and given us the hope of glory. How different would your life be if you lived each day believing this to your core, truly knowing what Jesus has done for you? How might living in that confidence free you to serve others?
That confidence in what God has done certainly frees Jesus. In verse three we read, “Knowing –that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, he got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his very body and began to wash the disciples’ feet.”
And as if this act weren’t remarkable enough, what makes it even more inspiring are the characters around that table. There’s Peter, one who loves Jesus but lacks humility and faith and ultimately denies him. And there’s Judas, whom Jesus knew would betray him later that very evening. Jesus also loved them to the end, and washed their feet.
Bring this home. Who’s Judas for you? Who is incredibly hard to love? Don’t leave the opportunity to radically love that person to Jesus or the “Mother Tereseas” of the world. Don’t do it. If you do that you miss God’s blessing. Look at verse seventeen with me; it’s not those who simply know about these things who are blessed, but those who do them.
Love is about serving, and serving is about doing. People of God move out of the confidence of what Christ has done for you and wash. Kneel and wash that nosy neighbor, that snitch of a former friend, that difficult in-law, that selfish colleague, that bull-headed kid, that sibling you wouldn’t have ever chosen, or that spouse that’s hurt you. Give your most expensive oil. Go ahead. Do it! Give your best pair of shoes. And expect and watch for the transformation that occurs in you as a result. There are no promises that your feet will look good in the end; they’ll probably be deformed. But should you choose to love in this way, you can rest in the assurance that those same feet will take you down some incredible paths, the likes of which we cannot even imagine. Amen.