“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” We hear Peter’s question in this story and realize that he was pretty uncomfortable with what was happening — and he’s probably not the only one. The disciples are all settled in for this Passover meal together — or pre-Passover meal, depending on which Gospel-writer you ask (more on that later) — when Jesus suddenly gets up from the table and does this thing absolutely none of them expects. He kneels before each of them in turn with a basin of water and a towel and gently washes their feet. For the society of the time, this is a scandalously out-of-place thing for Jesus to be doing — performing the work of a lowly slave. And the disciples are kind of embarrassed by it. Maybe some of you have experienced something like this for yourselves, if you’ve ever been to a church with a tradition of washing adults’ feet as well as children’s feet on Maundy Thursday. It is a little uncomfortable. It’s not what we come to church expecting to do, and it’s certainly not what the disciples expected from Jesus. He is their Lord and Teacher, the long-awaited Messiah — he shouldn’t be on his knees washing their feet! If anything, they should be washing his! This is not at all how it’s supposed to go in Peter’s mind, and he is having none of it. He declares, “You will never wash my feet.”
When reading this story, I am reminded of some of what I experienced as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I joined the Peace Corps fresh out of college, just bursting with visions of helping the world. Most of my visions looked a lot like the pictures you might see on a Peace Corps recruitment poster. Kind of like Peter and the disciples must have imagined what the coming of the Messiah would be like, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from Peace Corps service.
Like the disciples, however, the reality of my experience turned out to be a little different from what I’d imagined. For one thing, while I had this romantic idea in my head of myself as this noble, self-sacrificing volunteer who had come to make the community a better place, the community seemed to see me more as a well-meaning but clueless young American girl who needed to be taken care of herself more than anything else. For example, one endless source of frustration for me was the process of hauling clean drinking water to my house. I walked half a block down the street to the little store — called a colmado — where I would buy a big, five-gallon container of water, called a botellón, and lug it back to my house. Now, I — a proud, self-sufficient, hardworking person — was perfectly capable of carrying this big botellón back to my house on my own. But only rarely was I ever allowed to do so myself. And it drove me crazy!
One particularly hot afternoon, as I was walking down to the colmado with my empty botellón, I ran into Joselito. Joselito was a man who worked odd jobs around town and was easily one of the poorest people in the community. I met him trudging up the hill carrying a heavy five-gallon bucket in one hand. When he saw that I was walking down to get water, he insisted on carrying my botellón for me, to the colmado and back. I was so mortified walking back up the sidewalk behind him — here I was, this white, privileged, young American woman, walking behind a poor Dominican man in his tattered shoes and clothes, carrying my heavy botellón on one shoulder, in addition to the load he was already carrying. It was a scandalous image. Joselito was exactly the kind of person I’d imagined myself coming to serve, not the reverse. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Yet here he was, serving me, against all my expectations.
Lord, are you going to wash my feet?
This scene of Jesus’ unexpected and humble service to his disciples is set in a context that is very familiar to them: the Jewish festival of Passover. Our Old Testament reading for today is about the origins of the Passover festival. The story of the Exodus is a familiar one to most Christians, and one that is central to the Jewish faith. In it, God dramatically saves the Israelites from Egyptian slavery — sending plague after plague upon the people of Egypt, demanding through Moses that Pharaoh “Let my people go!” In this final night, the Lord instructs the Israelites to sacrifice lambs and to place the blood on their doorways as a sign of protection and salvation.
All four Gospel writers draw deep connections between this night and the evening of the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples. Matthew, Mark, and Luke write that the meal being shared by Jesus and the disciples is the Passover meal itself — the Seder. However, John, in our Gospel reading this evening, sets his version of events on the day before Passover, the Day of Preparation. John has a good reason for doing this. You see, the Day of Preparation was the day that the lambs for the Passover were slaughtered. John is trying to make a very clear connection between the sacrifice of the lambs and the impending sacrifice of Jesus — the Lamb of God — so in his Gospel, Jesus and the lambs are killed at the same time.
Jesus himself uses some of the familiar symbols of the Passover to draw out a similar connection, specifically using bread and wine to point to what is to come. For the disciples, on the other hand, the connection between Jesus and the Passover and the Exodus couldn’t be plainer. They know the same kind of oppression that their ancestors experienced under Egyptian rule. And they know that Jesus is God’s son, sent to save them. So they are just ready and rarin’ for him to get started with some of that plague-sending, firstborn-killing, sea-splitting action to put the Roman empire in its place. They are ready for Jesus to become a mighty, conquering king who will set them free.
And then Jesus gets down on his knees, assuming the position of a servant, and washes their feet. Not exactly the image of the king they were expecting. And then, things get even weirder for the disciples as Jesus picks up a loaf of bread, gives thanks, and breaks it, and says to them, “This is my body, that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And then, in the same way, he picks up a cup of wine and says to them, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Jesus had, indeed, come to save the world. But, to the disciples, it didn’t look like salvation at all.
Lord, are you going to wash my feet?
Jesus counters Peter’s refusal to have his feet washed by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And after he is finished washing their feet, he asks them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” And he goes on to tell them, “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.”
By his actions and his words, Jesus is setting a completely new standard for the Israelites, and for the world. It turns everything anyone thought they knew about the world or about loving themselves or each other completely on its head. And it’s especially poignant to note that, in this example Jesus sets, he includes all twelve disciples in his act of foot-washing. Jesus kneels before Judas, and lovingly washes the feet of the man he already knows will betray him and who will hand him over to unspeakable torture and death.
And so, instead of fighting to free the Jewish people from Roman rule and restore them to Israel, as the disciples expected, Jesus goes willingly to his death on the cross — and sets the world the ultimate example of selfless love.
There is a great reflection on this kind of love that has been making the rounds on facebook this week. Some of you may have seen it. It’s an interview with Brené Brown, a woman who found herself going back to church in a time of crisis, looking only to be comforted. Instead, she found herself challenged, and confronted with a whole new way to understand God’s love. She says, “‘God is love’ is a solution if you think love is about hearts and bows and unicorns. But ‘God is love’ takes on a whole new meaning when you realize [that] love is hard, love is struggle, love is persevering through hardship.” That is the kind of love that Christ is showing us. It’s the love of one who knelt at the feet of a beloved disciple before being betrayed by him. It’s the love of one who allowed himself to be crucified by the very people he came to save. It’s love that becomes another’s servant and washes another’s feet and carries another’s water and dies another’s death.
It’s love that sometimes doesn’t look like love at all.
As one of his final acts on earth, Jesus gives his disciples this simple commandment: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The “maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” refers to this commandment. It comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” which literally means “command.” Every year, we gather on this night to remember the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples; and as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we take our place in the long, ongoing story of salvation. But we also remind ourselves that we inherit this command along with this salvation. We, too, are commanded to love one another as Christ first loved us — and to love with love that isn’t always particularly dignified or even pleasant; to love with love that crosses barriers, that chooses mercy over judgment, and that sometimes just plain embarrasses us. We are to love with love that defies the world’s expectations. Because it’s through this unexpected love that we show the world who we are. And whose we are.
So as we gather together this Maundy Thursday evening, I invite you to expect the unexpected. Embrace the salvation that doesn’t look like salvation. And love, really love, one another, just as Christ loves you. Amen.