Every year on the Thursday before Easter, the lectionary text is the same: John 13. Every year we hear about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Every year I have to write a sermon about footwashing.
Excuse me: Every year I get to write a sermon about footwashing. And I mean that.
I worked for fifteen years for a backpacking camp where footwashing is part of the weekly program. After spending five days in the wilderness in a small group, the week closes with the leaders washing the participants’ dirty, smelly, blistered feet. When I started hiking there as a kid, this act of servanthood gave me my first, best understanding of the depth of God’s love for me. Now, as a pastor, I get to participate in this footwashing tradition with groups from my community… and every time I learn more about God’s love and call to servanthood.
Because of this, footwashing is a big part of my Christian faith. I could keep us up all night telling footwashing stories.
But I won’t. There’s just one story I want to tell tonight.
It happened after I had been leading hikes with Wilderness Trail for some years. Footwashing never became “normal” – it always makes me kind of nervous. But anything we do repeatedly becomes more comfortable, and by this point I had washed many, many groups’ feet. I thought I knew what to expect.
At our last campfire together the leaders and I re-told the footwashing story. We then prepared the teenagers that we’d be following Jesus’ command – we would be washing their feet. One by one we pulled them aside. We took off their (stinky) hiking shoes. We poured water over their feet and rubbed them clean with our hands. We looked up at each youth and named in them the wonderful qualities we’d seen in them that week.
One by one we did this, until we got to a guy I’ll call John. John was the rebel in the group – a little abrasive, a little rough around the edges. Even so, we had seen him pitch in and help out. We had seen him grow and show kindness. When we washed his feet, we told him all we had seen. I think we all cried a little.
(You know how, sometimes, when you’re overwhelmed with emotion, you don’t exactly know what to do? Maybe you laugh nervously or leave without saying goodbye because you can’t quite handle it? As I’ve thought about what happened next, I think it was that kind of inappropriate response… except on a much bigger scale.)
John got up, hugged us all, and walked back to the circle. He walked straight to a guy I’ll call Roy. Out of any of the group, Roy had probably been the most patient and kind to John all week. For that reason, I thought John was about to hug Roy. Instead, without any warning, John pulled back and began to punch Roy. Repeatedly and violently.
Thankfully, their youth director was helping lead the group. He responded quickly, jumping up and pulling John off of Roy with the superhuman strength that adrenaline provides. While the youth director restrained John, I went to Roy. His eyes were wide with surprise and hurt. I shined a flashlight in his face and confirmed that he had a bloody mouth but, thankfully, all 32 teeth. “What happened?” he asked.
I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know.
After the dust had literally settled, it was determined that John would apologize to Roy. I stood with Roy; the youth director walked John over. John said his apology. I remember thinking that it was heart-felt, but what kind of apology can overcome an unprovoked beating?
Then Roy did something I will never forget. He didn’t just say, “It’s okay, man” (which would have been amazing enough). He didn’t just look him in the eyes with kindness (which would have been amazing enough). That 17-year-old young man did what many adults would not: he opened his arms wide and embraced John in a hug, telling and showing him that all was forgiven.
What he did was – he washed John’s feet.
Hundreds of times I have retold this footwashing story. Hundreds of times I have read aloud Jesus’ culminating command. Every time, these words compel me and haunt me:
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
This is not literal, but it is mandatory. No, we are not required to take off someone’s socks and shoes and touch each other’s feet (although sometimes, that is good to do). Washing someone’s feet was a servant’s job in the first century. Jesus is showing and saying that we must serve one another. We must take on humble acts of service to each other.
And is there anything more humbling than to forgive? Is there any act of service we need more than the act of genuine forgiveness? Is there any better way to treat someone else as we would want to be treated than to say, “It’s all good between us?”
May we follow Jesus’ example. May we obey Jesus’ command.
May we serve one another.
And may we follow Roy’s example in that servanthood.
In humility, as an act of loving others as we love ourselves – may we forgive.