Close your eyes, and remember a time when you were touched with tenderness and love. Maybe it was the warm embrace of a parent or grandparent, who cradled you close. Maybe it was an infant in your arms, who rested a tiny hand on your face and gazed at you with eyes that said you were their whole world. Maybe it was the caress of a person you loved to the depths of your heart, or the arm of a friend around your shoulders. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all, but a beloved pet, who rested its paw on you when you most needed to know you weren’t alone.
Now imagine yourself in a different place—seated in an upper room overlooking a darkened street. Jesus stands up from the table where you have just eaten a meal with him. You watch, puzzled, as he stands, takes off his robe, and wraps a towel around his waist. The room falls silent. He deliberately takes a pitcher and pours fresh water into a bowl, takes it into his hands, and kneels—he kneels—before you. He gently slips the sandal from your foot and places it beside him, first one and then the other. He takes your right foot in his hands and eases it into the water. And then he begins to wash it, as though he were bathing the most fragile of newborns. He smooths his hand over your ankle and the top of your foot—so gently.
And then he cups your heel and slowly rubs the calloused places with his thumb, loosening each grain of sand that has found its way into the dry, cracked skin. He attends to each toe in its turn. He cups his hand and scoops up water, which he slowly pours over your ankle and foot. He reaches for the towel and lifts your foot from the water. In the silent room, you hear the quiet splashes in the bowl. He swaddles your foot in the towel, gently pressing the soft cloth against your skin until it is dry. Then he does the same thing to your other foot—slowly, lovingly, as though yours are the only feet he needs to attend to, and you his only guest. And then, his work complete, he stands, looks into your eyes, and then moves to the disciple beside you. He kneels, and begins again, washing the feet of each one, even the feet of the one who would betray him, even the feet of the one who would deny him.
This is what Jesus did for the disciples in the upper room, on the night of Passover, the night when he was betrayed, the night when he gave himself up for us. He did what any host would do for a guest in his home; he offered the hospitality of washed feet. In this offering of hospitality, he made it clear that he was the master of his house, and that the disciples had been welcomed into his home. But the home he welcomed them into was not an earthly one. It was the home he had come from and was returning to. In washing their feet, Jesus invited them to enter fully into his home, his life, his kingdom. In washing their feet, he included them in the same kind of loving relationship with him that he enjoys with his Father.
As master of the house, he would not have been expected to wash the feet of his guests himself. That was servants’ work. But in his loving act of service to those he loved, he was also preparing them for life after he had returned to his heavenly home. His was a life of service to those he loved, and in washing the disciples’ feet, he shows them what they must do when he was no longer physically with them. They were to wash each other’s feet—to love and serve each other as he had loved and served them.
Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is often taught as an example of how we are to serve the world. And certainly our love for him and our desire to live as he did propel us to care for others. But on this night, in this act, Jesus speaks to us as a community of believers. He invites each of us into that relationship of love between the Son and the Father. He teaches us to care for one another, to love each other as he loves us. We are to reflect the love between God the Father and God the Son, in unity with the Holy Spirit, in our relationships with each other until he comes again.
In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus made a commitment to them. He offered them a place in his kingdom and an opportunity to fully participate in his life. By accepting his act of service to them, they also accepted his invitation. We, too, receive that invitation. Jesus may never have cradled our feet in his hands, but he touches our hearts with as much gentleness and love as did when he washed the feet of the disciples. He may never have poured water over the soles of our feet, but he cleanses the sin from our hearts with his blood. He may never have knelt before us with a bowl and towel in his hand, but he nonetheless extends to us a welcome into his household. The invitation is the same for us tonight as it was for the disciples so long ago: to enter into his life, in all its fullness, and into the loving household of God. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young