Tonight, Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples. Including Judas. And in a couple minutes we will get to participate in that meal. But for the gospel of John, the meal isn’t the most important thing. In fact, it gets almost no attention.
No, John is more interested in what interrupts the meal.
In the middle of loaves of bread and jars of wine being passed around a table, Jesus stands up. Takes off his robe, wraps a towel around him self, pours water into a bowl and one by one, he takes the feet of each disciple into his own calloused hands and washes them. Back then, the feet were regularly the dirtiest part of the body. With unpaved roads made of dust and dirt, and only sandals at best for protection, the feet got pretty beat up. They were in constant need of cleaning. And so at the door of most homes there would be a jug of water so that guests could wash their feet before entering. It was a dirty and menial job that either they would do for themselves or servants of the house would do for them. The head of the household, the host, would never do such dirty work. Which makes it all the more powerful when Jesus of all people waters, washes, and wipes clean the feet of his disciples. And then…and then, Jesus commands his disciples to do the same to one another. To wash each other’s feet. To love one another as he has loved them.
It is an incredible image of humble service. That we are to love one another with such tender care and compassion as this. To not put ourselves above one another, but to lower ourselves. To humble ourselves so that we might serve our neighbor.
For service and serving others are at the heart of the Christian life. To do for others rather than simply doing for ourselves. But the thing is, service, to serve others, is also hard. Really hard. Truth be told, this text has left me unsettled this week. It has left me disturbed. But really, I think it’s because something else has left me unsettled this week. I have to confess all week I have been haunted by an experience I had on Sunday night.
This past Sunday evening, a group of us went to help serve supper at Meals of Hope, a free meal that Trinity Lutheran in Owatonna offers to anyone who is hungry. A bus goes around town, making a couple of stops and picking up anyone who wants to come and eat. It is a fantastic program that has been going on for about 7 years now.
All of Sunday afternoon, I was so excited to come and help serve a meal for people who were hungry. But to tell you the truth, the moment my foot stepped into that building, I was nervous. Or more honestly, I was scared. Because I knew I was going to come face to face with people that were…well…different than me. I knew I was going to encounter people who I often don’t interact with. I was going to see people who were in such dire straights and desperation that I usually don’t see.
As soon as we got inside, I found myself desperate for something to do. For someone to tell me what to do. Something to keep my hands busy so I wouldn’t have to think about how uncomfortable I was. To give me something to work on so that I knew my place. So that I knew where I fit in a place where I felt I didn’t fit.
Soon enough, I was assigned to being the greeter. Alone. Okay, I thought, I can do this. All I have to do is say hi to people with a smile. Help them feel welcome. Show them where to go…even though they’ve probably been here more times than I have. And then, someone started approaching the door. Ah, here’s my chance, I thought. Show time. I know, I’ll open the door for him. He looks like he could use a hand with that. But Trinity, with it’s bright, brand new building, had automatic door openers. By the time I got there, the man had already pushed the button, and I was suddenly more in the way than I was helpful.
Then, two of our youth were assigned to come and help me greet, and I was so glad they were there. I wasn’t alone in it anymore. We could be uncomfortable together.
From that point on, with each person that walked in the door, I had this inner monologue saying, Okay, should I say “Hello”? Or “Hi!”? Or maybe I should say something about the weather. Hmmm….
Overall, it was clumsy. And awkward. Some interactions went better than others. Some people were genuinely happy to see someone welcoming them. Others were suspicious of us, wondering for what organization we were trying earn service hours this time. Suspicious that we were there to really make ourselves feel good, rather than actually serve them.
And so here I am thinking I am doing what Jesus asked us to do – serve people. Love them. Being humble and giving of yourself.
But it just didn’t feel right. The whole time it felt like there was a barrier between us. Both economically and socially. I felt like a privileged, middle-class person serving the poor and underprivileged. It felt like a one-way street. They were needy. I was the volunteer. They needed something. I had something to give them. The movement of service was one sided. One direction. Me to them. As a result, I kept them at an arms length. Close enough to serve them. But far enough away to not know them. Even when I went to sit down and eat my meal (which, embarrassingly, one of two dinners I would have that night) I sat with volunteers I knew, rather than the guests I didn’t. It was safer that way.
But then, along side me came this volunteer named Mieca. She looked comfortable there. And as people continued to come in, she greeted them by name. She asked about their family…by name. She asked if the new medication they were on was helping. She sat down beside them. She played with their children. She listened to their stories. I mean, it was like she…well…it was like she knelt down with a towel and a warm bowl of water, and she gently and compassionately washed their feet like a friend.
And yesterday, with a little help from some friends, it dawns on me. Mieca wasn’t just serving people who were hungry. She had a relationship with them. It wasn’t one-sided. The people knew Mieca, just as she knew them. It was a two-way street. Mutual caring.
On his last night alive, one of Jesus’ last things he does with his disciples is wash their feet. And then, he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” If you’ll notice, this too is not a one sided relationship. Jesus doesn’t just asked the disciples to wash people’s feet. He asks them to stick out their own feet, so that they might be washed too. It is not only about serving, but also about being served. It is mutual; it is shared. It creates a relationship.
You see, I had forgotten that the people I thought I was serving just might also be people who could serve me. With something I didn’t know I needed.
But we don’t like to be served, do we? We don’t like to show our places of need; we don’t like to stick out our dirty feet for all to see and touch. Peter certainly didn’t. “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” he cries. But Jesus is quick to say, “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no share of me.” Peter, unless I wash you, how will you ever know me and how will I ever know you. We won’t be invested in each other’s lives. Service must be mutual. And shared. So that it creates a relationship.
As I said, Sunday was unsettling for me. But as I have thought and thought about that night, it turns out, I was served that night too. At one point after their meal, two young sisters, Angela and Alivia, came out and goofed around in the hallway with each other right in front of me. They danced and laughed with such abandon and silliness that you couldn’t help but join in the laughter and smile with them. They put me at ease. They helped me feel more comfortable there. Then a man came out and told me my glasses made me look like Buddy Holly, which then lead to an interesting conversation about that famous night when the music died. Here I was the greeter, yet I actually felt more welcomed by him.
Looking back, the barrier between us and them had started to come down. It was no longer me and the needy. It was me and other people. Other beating hearts. It was us.
When Jesus asks his disciples to wash each other’s feet, we aren’t just asked to serve others. We are asked to stick out our own feet. You see, we all have dirty feet. And we all need washing. Just like we all need to be fed. When Jesus calls us to wash each other’s feet, to love one another as he has loved us, he isn’t calling us to simply live a generous life. He calls us to a relational life. A life where we each have a share, a stake in one another. It isn’t just about serving someone a hungry meal, it about eating a meal with someone who is hungry just like you. Allowing them to feed you. It is serving with each other. Not to each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there was anything wrong or bad about a group of us going to volunteer at Meals of Hope. I think it was a good thing. No, it was a good thing. I would do it again. In fact, I will do it again on April 21st and I invite you to join me. But this time, I just hope I can find the courage to stick out my own feet. To sit down with other guests as I eat my meal. To ask them their name and give them mine. To open the door to the possibility that the very people who I came to serve just might be able to serve me. To give me something that I need too. It won’t be easy. It never is. It’s hard. It’s unsettling. But it’s worth the effort, I think. To go back and to meet people once again. To take the chance on a relationship with them.
I was unsettled that night, but maybe when we serve others, we are supposed to be unsettled. If we are not unsettled by service. By being served. Then maybe we are missing something. If it doesn’t haunt us when we leave. If it doesn’t drive us back to more and more service, then maybe we are missing something.
Many churches tonight are actually washing each others feet during their service. We aren’t doing that. I was afraid it was be too unsettling. Now I wish we were. I’ve come to learn that to be unsettled is a good thing. It is where God meets us. It’s where God works on us. Chiseling at our hard hearts. Softening them. Breaking them open. And when it comes to loving one another, that’s a good thing.
In a couple of minutes we all will stretch out not our feet for washing, but our hands for feeding. And it is here that we confess that we all are in need. In need of grace, forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love. And tonight, God gives it in the ordinary elements of bread and wine. God always gives it. Because there is always more of it to give. And nothing can stop what’s about to happen. Nothing can stop God from giving it. In fact, God would do just about anything, even die, to give us such grace and love. May we too love one another like. AMEN