I have worked with teenagers as a pastor leading youth ministry for nearly 12 years. There are a lot of fun things about working with teens. They are fun to watch grow and change. I even still enjoy road trips and overnighters. I must be honest though. On those overnighters and retreats there is one thing I have a hard time with. That one thing is the smell of adolescent boys’ feet, especially in late middle school or early high school. The odor once they take their shoes off is enough to make one’s eyes water.
You may laugh if you like, but I would like you to take a moment to consider what it must have been like for Jesus on that night in the upper room. Twelve men with old, threadbare sandals, feet caked with mud hardened with sweat, who probably had not bathed for several days. These were working men. They were men who walked at least 10 miles a day from the sounds of it. Their feet were disgusting.
Even more true to our own experiences, imagine what it might be like to be one of the disciples. I imagine the disciples arguing. Blaming. Whose fault is this? Who forgot to hire the foot-washer for this occasion? We can’t eat a meal like this with our feet dirty! Peter, its your fault! Why don’t you wash everyone’s feet? Why don’t you, John? How about Bartholomew? Nobody remembers his name anyway! Jesus takes a deep breathe.
And in the midst of their arguing, I imagine Jesus quietly working in the background in the commotion. He sets out a basin. He sets out a towel. Both in a place where nobody notices.
They begin to eat the meal with dirty feet.
Somewhere in the middle of the meal Jesus stands up, and walks toward the basin. He takes off his nice robe so he is just in his undergarments. He wraps a towel around his waist. (I think he does this both to be modest, and to signal the disciples about the role that he was taking.)
He comes up to the first disciple. He begins to wash his feet. Everybody gets a little uncomfortable. What is this future king, this one that throngs of people shouted “Hosannna” to last Sunday now doing? Is this one of his parables? Am I going to feel bad letting him do this a couple of days from now?
As they are thinking he finishes wiping one man’s feet clean and moves to another. And I imagine the disciples not being that different from those teenage boys in another way besides having smelly, dirty feet. I imagine them beginning to feel very self-conscious. Worrying about Jesus seeing what they might have felt was the ugliest part of them. I imagine as Jesus kept washing people’s feet it might have felt awkward, uncomfortable ……weird. I imagine the disciples may have felt vulnerable, and exposed. At risk.
Jesus continues to wash.
Sooner or later, Jesus gets to Peter. Peter is the drama king of the group. You know the type. Peter is the one that appoints himself to speak on behalf of the whole group. Every small group, every church, every job where you have to work in teams has someone like Peter.
“You think you are washing my feet?” Peter says.
“Uh-huh.” Jesus replies, “Just do it…you will figure out why I am doing this later.”
“No way,” says Peter, “you aren’t touching my stinking feet.”
“Unless you let me wash your feet, you are not on my team!” Jesus says.
Jesus goes on to say he washed the disciple’s feet to show them the importance of serving and being served. To set the standard.
You will notice the command, if you read on, it to wash one another’s feet. Not to simply be the servant, but to receive service too. Not simply to offer grace and forgiveness, but to seek and receive it as well. Jesus in his last hours sets an example for each of us to seek a servant heart. But, he does more than that. He creates a serving community as well. A community of mutuality. A community that seeks to be Jesus’ hands and feet, but is humble enough to admit we need to be open, honest and vulnerable enough to allow our hands and feet to be washed as well. To trust Jesus at the basin and the towel means that we trust Jesus to make us a community that realizes that we need Jesus and we need one another to be made clean, to be made faithful, and to be made whole.