If you want to hear a story that’s been told over and over and over and over and over again in circles of the church when it comes to serving one another, it’s definitely the Jesus-washes-the-disciples’-feet story. But what if there was a more practical way to understand it?
In John 13, during the Passover meal, Jesus got up, took off His outer garment, wrapped Himself with a towel, and sat down to wash His disciples’ feet. Immediately, everyone in the room was taken aback. Streets were nasty. Feet were disgusting. Washing feet was the job of the lowliest of servants – not even Jewish servants were expected to wash guests’ feet. Yet here was the rabbi, taking on the worst job these other eleven guys could think of.
We’ve all heard of how Peter protested Jesus washing his feet. The thought of his rabbi serving him in that way just didn’t compute. He refused to let Jesus wash his feet, which prompted Jesus to warn him that if He couldn’t wash Peter’s feet, then he had no part in Him. Realizing that there was a reason behind Jesus’s servile display, Peter demanded that Jesus wash his whole body. Jesus, undoubtedly shaking His head, told him that someone who has bathed doesn’t need another bath, they just need their feet washed where they are dirty.
Jesus concludes His display of servitude with an instruction and a lesson: since He was their rabbi, and He washed their feet, there should be nothing in the world that should hinder them from serving each other in any way that is needed – regardless of how far it is beneath their “dignity”.
This past summer, at camp, one guy had an obsession with the phrase “washing feet” that just didn’t quit. I can’t even tell you how many of the other guy counselors would come to me and just get it off their chest of how they couldn’t stand how much this guy talked about washing other people’s feet. He wasn’t doing it to be annoying. The concept obviously carried great weight for him. But, despite people talking with him and trying to understand why he was using this particularly pious phrasing instead of just talking about serving, not a prayer went by without a very vocal “Father, shows us how to wash these kids’ feet” or a “Let us be good foot washers.”
Clearly, he missed the point. While he understood what Jesus meant on the surface, he often missed or disregarded the needs for which he prayed we all would have hearts to meet. It got to the point where it felt as though he prayed that everyone but him would meet those needs. Gross or dirty jobs were better done by others. Serving food, cleaning up messes, those were good and public areas for him to serve. For all his abundant talk of serving at the lowest level, he just didn’t do it.
I have other friends that took it to the extreme. College students themselves, they would park as far as they could from Walmart to “give space for others in closer spots” and instead of calling the front seat in the car, they would call back middle – the worst and most cramped seat in a five-seater car. It turned almost into a game for them. And it focused them on putting their needs last, giving others the best options, and serving from the bottom. They noticed the change in themselves and each other over only a few short months that they were more compassionate, caring, and loving. They were more full of the love of Jesus.
They didn’t need sermons or leaders telling them why it’s important to serve, they just needed to serve. They didn’t need people praying for them to meet needs, they just needed to meet the needs they could see.
Oftentimes, “washing people’s feet” has nothing to do with urging others to serve but rather has everything to do with just serving them yourself as often as you can, no matter what it is. It rubs off. It inspires them to do the same. It creates a lasting impact in their lives.
It sure did for the disciples.