A Story of Foot Washing
It was a custom in Jesus’ time that hosts would provide water for their guests to wash their feet. The roads were dusty and many people wore sandals, so offering water to help make their guests comfortable was a way to show them hospitality.
There are examples throughout the Bible of foot washing. When 3 strangers visit Abraham, he calls for water to be brought for them to wash their feet (Genesis 18:4). Abraham’s nephew, Lot, does the same when 2 angels arrive in his town (19:2). Rebekkah’s brother, Laban, provides this for Abraham’s servant (24:32), and Joseph does this for his brothers when they visit him in Egypt (43:24).
In the New Testament there are two main examples of foot washing. Two Sundays ago we heard the story of Jesus at dinner with his friends and disciples (John 12:1-8). There, in an act of gratitude and love, his friend Mary poured oil on his feet and dried them with her hair.
Now we find Jesus and the disciples gathered at a meal once again, but this time Jesus does the washing (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). This may not seem like a big deal to us today, but back then, it was alarming! You see, when hosts provided water, guests would either wash their own feet or the host would bring out a slave to do the washing. So the thought of Jesus, the Son of God, washing his disciples’ feet was absurd!
Think about if your teacher or principal offered to wash your feet. Or your boss. Or even the president. You’d feel pretty awkward, right?
Well, that’s how Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, felt. “You’re never touching my feet,” he said. He probably felt embarrassed to see Jesus, his teacher and friend, as well as the Messiah, in this lowly position. He didn’t want to be a part of it. Maybe he was also embarrassed to let someone he cared about so much touch his feet. “My feet are smelly and dirty—why would I let the man I believe is God’s Son come anywhere near them?” [This might remind you of John the Baptist saying he was unworthy to even untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals (John 1:27)].
But Jesus replied that this is what he was all about. Jesus ministered to the poor, to the marginalized. He treated everyone as if they were worthy of God’s love, regardless of their background or their faults. “I’m doing this not because I think I’m less than or because you need it. I’m doing this because I want to show you how much I love you. If you don’t let me wash your feet, Simon, you are missing out on what I am all about.”
At this point Simon, always the enthusiast, goes a little overboard and asks Jesus to wash his hands and his head. I imagine Jesus chuckles and says, “You don’t need a bath, Simon; this is just a symbolic washing.” When Jesus is done washing everyone’s feet, he tells them to continue his example, to serve and love one another, just as Jesus did.
And so we’ve kept up the tradition of foot washing throughout the ages. In fact, today Pope Francis went to a Juvenile Detention Center and washed the feet of 12 youth, male and female, from Catholic and Orthodox and Muslim backgrounds. After drying their feet he even kissed them.
This evening we, too, have an opportunity to wash each other’s feet (or hands, if you’d prefer). It may feel weird or scary to be so vulnerable with each other. But remember that God loves us exactly as we are, whether our feet are smelly or perfectly pedicured.
So now I invite you to come forward as you feel moved, while we sing together a song from Ghana found in our Episcopal hymnal, Jesu, Jesu.