John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” As usual, Peter just doesn’t get it. At first he refuses Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. When Jesus tells Peter he must wash his feet, Peter wants his head and hands washed as well. Peter is so like the rest of us. When he realizes he’s said the wrong thing, he proceeds to put his foot even further into his mouth.
I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. Even in a cultural context where foot-washing was a common practice of hospitality, it would have been downright weird to do what Jesus does and start washing feet in the middle of dinner. We can be pretty sure that it isn’t concern for hygiene or even comfort that’s motivating Jesus. I think we can also be sure it’s not ritual cleanliness that’s on Jesus’ mind. Jesus presents a model of servanthood, to be sure. But the lesson Jesus teaches by washing the feet of his disciples reaches beyond even servanthood.
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus teaches them what it’s like to be in loving relationship with one another. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches them about mutuality in love. Jesus turns the whole notion of the master-servant hierarchy upside down. He offers service to the very people who think it’s their job to serve him instead. By performing the service of foot-washing for his disciples, Jesus teaches them how to receive service. By this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples know what service looks like. They’ve seen Jesus touch lepers and minister to outcasts. They’ve seen him eat with people whom others consider beyond the pale. Now, as their own feet are washed by Jesus, they learn what it’s like to be the ones who are served.
The lesson that Jesus teaches in the foot-washing is one that we too would do well to learn. Most of us have internalized the idea that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’d venture to guess that most Christians believe that it’s better to serve than be served. Most of us like to think of ourselves as givers and helpers. It certainly is good to give and it’s certainly good to help. But if we are givers and helpers only, and are never receivers, we perpetuate a hierarchy in which some people are defined as being better than others. If we refuse what others offer, if we refuse the service of others, we may—without meaning to—deprive someone else of the chance to give and serve.
We may want to keep Jesus’ lesson in mind as we think about our relationships with our homeless neighbors. In our eagerness to consider how we may serve them, it may be easy to forget what it is that they may offer us. Yes, we want to emulate Jesus and be washers of feet. But Jesus, too, had his feet washed with ointment by Mary, who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair. Sometimes it is as blessed to give as to receive. Sometimes it is as blessed to be served as to serve. Mutuality is essential to truly loving relationships, like the one Jesus has with the disciples and like the one Jesus has with his Father. “Unless I wash you,” says Jesus, “you have no share with me.” Amen.