I grew up in one of those churches. You know, the ones that practiced the very literal practice of “feet washing.” This is not the service you want to invite your unchurched friends to attend, because it usually freaks them out. As a child I remember watching the process with amazement. First, men and women separated into different rooms. When I was too small to participate, I stayed with the men. It was intriguing to watch men carry in basins of water to set in front of the pews. Then grown men took off their shoes and socks, paired up and took turns solemnly washing each other’s bare feet. As I grew older, I was encouraged to join the women and to find my own partner in crime to wash feet with. Even though I had witnessed it for years, it was still awkward and strange to me.
This was the epitome of service to each other within the body of faith.
It is a direct reflection of Jesus’s actions at the last supper.
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
I am comforted by this scripture. Peter seemed to think this was strange as well. And he understood the custom of washing feet in his day and age. But he still wasn’t having it.
Here is what I take from this.
Serving folks is sloppy.
It’s true. Foot-washing involved hauling basins, splashing water, towels, mopping up, not to mention the ickiness of bare toes, toenails, toe jam, the list goes on. But if we are going to serve one another well, we better get ready to change clothes a few times. If we are going to live in community, we may have to get too close for comfort at times. And it can be embarrassing. I just suffered the humiliation of church folk moving my washer and dryer out of my house. I was not excited about exposing the herd of dust bunnies, stray dryer sheets, and flyswatters that managed to find residence under them. But when you need help, you have to lay down your pride and accept it.
Serving requires permission.
I imagine that Peter was no small fellow. I have absolutely nothing to base this on, but in my mind, he was a linebacker. And I suspect that if he didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, someone was gonna have to take him down to make it happen. Is it really service to others, if we have to hog-tie someone into letting us serve them? Serving others involves asking permission. Just because I think someone should like their yard mowed doesn’t mean they will appreciate my method, particularly if their lawn is their pride and joy.
Serving takes explanation.
Peter was willing to give permission, when he understood the meaning behind Jesus’s behavior. We might think it is fun to serve someone by ding-dong-ditching them but in fact, it might be important to actually look someone in the eye and explain the love of Jesus in words. Instead of just hoping they got the idea, it might be good to attach our deeds to our motives. Otherwise, they could just credit us with being good folks. I don’t know about you, but without Jesus, I am not necessarily good folk. I dare not accept credit for something I am doing for God.
Serving requires humility.
It is easy to understand the humility it takes to get messy, approach someone, and actually put our motives into words, but it also takes humility to receive service. Peter wasn’t about to let Jesus wash his feet. He was a little bit proud. And to be truthful, it can be humbling to let someone wash our bare feet. But we can gauge our service to others and find ways for people to preserve their dignity. When we give to the poor, we can treat them like folks who actually have money for the things we are offering. Our service needs to outweigh the cost of dignity.
Interestingly, serving people within the body of Christ can sometimes be more difficult than serving those on the highways and byways. But Jesus clearly gave us the example of humbly serving those close to us. This may require us to venture into someone else’s space and it may require us to lay down our pride long enough to let someone serve us.
As we venture into a week of service, we want to serve those in our city, our community, and even in our church.