John 13:1-17, 31b-35
On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers and with them, he did something incredible. Washing the feet of another person in first century Palestine was usually the job of someone of very low social status. In that geographic region, the landscape was arid, dusty, sandy, and harsh. Transportation from home to work, from field to town, from village to village, was accomplished by walking and of course, the invention of hiking boots was several centuries away. Sandals were the fashion back then. You can imagine what their feet looked like by the end of the day. I am sure they were covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you might imagine the odor. The cleaning of feet had both a practical and social significance in those days.
When traveling guests stopped for a respite at a friend’s home, it was not uncommon for a homeowner to instruct one of his or her servants to take fresh water to the entrance of the home, and wash each guest’s feet prior to entry. This was an act of great hospitality and not a mere a practical gesture. What is significant about Jesus’ actions was, he did not send a servant to his disciples at the Last Supper, he served them himself. This event was of great importance to that little band of followers, as it is for us today. What we sometimes see as an insignificant ritual, speaks volumes to the very nature of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. God, in the mystery of the Incarnation, sent not a mere servant to reconcile us, He did it himself in Christ. God invites us to be served by God.
Each year some of us are dead set against participating in this very important part of Holy week, but when we resist, we miss out on the great lessons of humility and community. There is great humility on both sides of the foot basin. For the one washing, you are humbling yourself to give care to someone, serving them from a very lowly state. For the one being washed you are humbling yourself to receive a free gift from someone and allowing them to enter your personal space. Personally, it is difficult for me to even have my spouse whom I love, trust, and share life to give me such a gift. However, in this ancient ritual, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, by offering ourselves to be cleansed by another.
Isn’t this what the gift of grace all about? The reconciliation of humankind to God was not something passed on to someone else. It was not a job that was so insignificant that it was delegated to a flunky. No, God did it Godself. God took on flesh and walked among us. He offered himself not as a powerful ruler, king, sword wielder, but as the humble servant, willing to give all for all.
The wonderful thing about God’s grace, this free gift given us by the humble servant Lord, is that all we must do is receive it. Receiving grace gives us the strength to remove the masks we wear, the covering of ourselves that hides our brokenness, and we stand before God and say, “Here I am, wash me clean.” God does just that. There is humility and grace and both sides of the foot basin. The ritual of Foot washing is a practical lesson in humility, and it is a gesture of what it means to live in community. A willingness to humble ourselves and serve each other, reflects the commitment of God in Christ, to serve and reconcile us to Godself and each other.
The gesture of washing each other’s feet signifies our commitment to each other. To allow a sister or brother to wash our feet, shows that we are a community of commitment, service, and mutual love. On the eve before he offered himself to death on the cross, as the humbled, self-giving servant, Our Lord used this very significant moment, this significant act to teach us, to encourage us, and to command us to love one another. As we gather on the eve on which Our Lord gave himself for us, I invite each of you to come forward this evening, and wash each other’s feet as a sign of humility, obedience, mutual commitment, and our love for one another.