John 13: 12-17 (NRSV)
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
I recently taught this Johannine story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to my first and second grade virtual Sunday School class. I asked what they thought it would feel like to have their feet washed. The reactions ranged from, “It would be awkward,” to, “It would be really, really awkward.” It is obvious (even to a seven-year-old) that Jesus is doing something uncomfortable.
Keep in mind that Jesus washes the disciples’ feet only in the gospel of John. And not only that, it happens during the Last Supper. The other gospels tell of breaking bread and pouring wine, but John centers the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on a surprising act of love. Typically, the servant of the house would wash the feet of guests—never the other way around. Jesus flips tradition on its head in the name of service. Jesus’ foot washing is a radical act against the grain.
To review, Jesus is: awkward, uncomfortable, surprising, loving, and radical. The tricky part about these verses is that he’s telling us that we need to be those things, too.
It’s easy to let the historic context of scripture serve as a scapegoat but that misses the point. Jesus doesn’t exactly need us to wash each other’s feet. Jesus needs this Christian community to engage in awkward, uncomfortable, surprising, loving, and radical acts of service. Start small, think big. Do one unexpected thing today that serves another in the name of God. Now we know these things; we are blessed if we do them.
Gracious God, may this community be strengthened by Jesus’s example. Motivate us to be awkward, uncomfortable, surprising, loving, and radical. Show us the ways that you need us to do the unexpected. Amen.