Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 ; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Over a decade ago, Terri and I, and several members of our young adult ministry team used to travel to downtown Fort Myers, to provide a hot meal for about 50-60 homeless folks, who spent every night living on the streets of Fort Myers. It was an incredibly humbling and leveling experience for us. We would sit across the picnic table and eat a meal with someone, who in our culture is often seen as less than, forgotten, and avoided. To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you.
We listened to the stories of these folks, God’s people, and discovered many times that their plight was not because of laziness or a desire for a carefree lifestyle. To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you. We served the least, lost, and lonely and to do so, the ministry team had to humble ourselves, so we might actually understand what it means to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” To be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you. That is exactly what Jesus Christ did for us, by coming among us and humbling himself to serve us.
On the evening before his death on the cross, Our Lord gathered his closest followers together and did something incredible for them; he washed their feet. In the 21st century, we may think that it was not such a big deal, but in Jesus’ time, washing the feet of another person was the job of someone of very low social status, usually a household servant. 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. Sandals were the fashion back then, and of course, the invention of high quality walking shoes was several centuries away. You can imagine what their feet looked like by the end of the day. I am sure those feet were covered with sand, caked on with gunk, and you can only 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 common for a homeowner to instruct one of his or her lowliest of servants to take fresh water to the entrance of the home, and wash each guest’s feet prior to entry. To offer this service, it was an sign of great hospitality and not a mere a practical gesture. The significance of Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet was profound. Before the Last Supper, Jesus did not send a servant to offer that deed of humility. Jesus served them himself.
This event was of great importance to that little band of followers, and it should be, as weighty a sign of humility and service 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. So tonight’s ritual of foot washing is God’s invitation to be served by God through the hands of his followers.
Each year some of us are dead set against participating in tonight’s ritual of foot washing, but when we resist, we miss out on one the great lessons of humility, and of community, taught to us by Our Lord. For the one washing, you are humbling yourself to give care to someone else, serving them from a very lowly state. For the one being washed you are humbling yourself to receive a free gift from someone, by allowing them to enter your personal space. There is great humility on both sides of the foot basin. Personally, it can be difficult for me, to even have my spouse whom I love, trust, and share my life with, to give me such a gift. However, in this ancient ritual, we allow ourselves to become vulnerable, offering ourselves to be cleansed by another.
Isn’t this what the gift of grace is all about? The reconciliation of humankind to God was not something assigned 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 that hide our brokenness, so we may 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 gesture of washing each other’s feet signifies our commitment to each other. To allow a sister or brother to wash your 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. Tonight, I invite each of you to come forward, wash each other’s feet as a sign of commitment and our mutual love for God, and for one another. There is humility and grace and both sides of the foot basin, and to be willing to have an experience like that, it will change you.