A Basin and a Towel

John 13:1-17 

As I mentioned last week in John 12, Jesus has announced that the hour has arrived, his time has come. In these next six chapters, the last night of his life, Jesus will focus on what he knows is essential for his disciples to survive without him. It is a matter of priorities. Now that the hours are short, he is going to make every word count.

As John sets up this evening, he begins by telling us: Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. (Jn 13:1)

If you haven’t already figured it out, the only real reason Jesus came was love. He tells us explicitly that he did not come for judgment, he didn’t come to abolish the law, he didn’t come to rid the world of poverty and disease. He came to demonstrate God’s love for us. In fact, that’s a theme John will take up again when he writes in his first letter, 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”

And so, here in John 13, John tells us that everything that follows in this story will serve to define and demonstrate what love looks like. And we will see that love is never more powerfully demonstrated than in serving.

The story begins in the upper room as Jesus and his twelve disciples sit around the table eating the Passover meal. (Now it is Thursday night, and it’s a day early for Passover. The next evening, as Jesus hangs on the cross, all across Jerusalem Passover lambs will be slaughtered as the Jewish leaders hurry to get home before sundown.) This Thursday evening, Jesus eats the traditional Passover with his disciples because his time has come.

Let’s read the story:

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. (John 13:2-11)

You’ll notice that John’s Gospel doesn’t give us the details of the meal or the institution of Lord’s supper. The other Gospels tell us about that, but none of the Gospels except John tell us about what happens next.

They had sat down for the meal and it was being served, but one detail had been left out of the preparations: a servant to wash their feet. As they reclined at table they would lay on their sides and their feet would be off to the side as they leaned on one elbow. Their feet, stinky and dirty from the day would be in each other’s faces and so it was a normal and usual thing to hire a servant to remove their sandals and wash their feet before the meal. It was a menial job, beneath the dignity of any of the disciples. But it is a teachable moment for Jesus.

John wants us to know the motivation and the significance behind what Jesus did: Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

Nothing that Jesus did was out of weakness or ignorance. When he takes the role of a humble house slave, he does it intentionally and purposefully. He knew all things were under his power. He also knew that his time with his disciples was short. So he seizes this opportunity to impress on them his most important lesson of all. He wrapped a towel around a waist, filled a basin with water and kneeled down before the first disciple’s feet and began to wash their feet and dry them with the towel.

One by one, he moves down the line, washing and drying feet. Each one, in silent wonder and embarrassment, feels the gentle touch of his Master… until Peter. Peter, who has been observing this until now can’t hold it in: “Lord, you will never wash my feet!” I think everyone else was thinking what Peter said out loud. They were the ones who should have been washing Jesus’ feet – they had messed up, but were too embarrassed to say anything. Not Peter. Peter always says what is on his mind. And so he says, “Lord, I’m not going to let you wash my feet.”

You know what Jesus said next: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Again, as Peter so often does, he misunderstands and reacts over the top: .” “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

As so often happens, Jesus speaks on one level while Peter listens on another level. Jesus speaks of spiritual cleansing, Peter thinks Jesus is telling him to take a bath.

So Jesus explains: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.

What that also reminds me of is that Judas is still there among them, and when Jesus comes to Judas, he knows what is already in Judas’ heart. But when he takes his feet in his hands, he doesn’t scrub them extra hard (“I’ll show you!”) but with the same gentleness that he has showed everyone else.

Once he finishes washing feet, he returns to his place and while they continue to eat he asks them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” It’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is obviously “No!” This strange behavior catches them by surprise and leaves them embarrassed by the oversight. But Jesus points out, it was not an oversight. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17)

This isn’t a lesson in clean feet, it’s a lesson in obedience. This obedience is characterized by the absolute desire to be like our Master and Lord. Obedience isn’t a matter of keeping rules, but of imitating Jesus. I said that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law – he came to fulfill it. And in fulfilling the law, he became the perfect living embodiment of the law. If you want to know what the law says, look at Jesus. If you want to be obedient to God, imitate Jesus.

And where do you find Jesus? On his knees kneeling and washing feet. Paul will write in Philippians 2, Who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8)

Serving was not just something Jesus did, it was who he was. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus will interrupt James and John who are arguing about who is the greatest and tell them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

You see, Jesus wasn’t instituting a foot washing ceremony, he was impressing upon his disciples the absolute importance of serving. And he ends the lesson by saying: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

What does it mean to serve? Serving grows out of a humble, sacrificial willingness to be the arms and feet of Jesus. It is not so much losing one’s identity, but truly finding it in Jesus. One does not serve because he can do nothing else, but because he would not be fulfilled doing anything else. He has found the one thing worth doing, because it is what was central to the very heart of Jesus himself. How does one develop this lifestyle? Where do you begin? It starts with some basic commitments and skills:

1) Pay attention

The writer of the Hebrews letter said, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:25). He literally says, “Let us pay attention to one another….” We must develop a habit of paying attention to the people around us, keeping our antennas up and listening to the needs that become obvious when we’re tuned in.

A good example of this was Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus was a poor beggar who sat outside the rich man’s door every day, begging and eking out a meager existence. Every day the rich man would leave his house and walk right by Lazarus, never giving him a thought. The rich man ate sumptuous meals and Lazarus would have loved to eat even the scraps that fell from his table. Instead, the rich man’s dogs ate better than Lazarus and to add insult to injury, the rich man would let his dogs out and they would come and lick Lazarus’ sores while he smelled the wonderful food on their breath. When both men died, Abraham condemned the rich man for not paying attention to the needs that were right outside his gate.

It’s important to pay attention. Every day God will put opportunities in front of us to serve. Only if we pay attention will we have any chance to respond. We might have good intentions but if we aren’t paying attention they will pass us by.

2) People are more important than schedules

We must reshape our priorities and begin to place greater importance on the things Jesus counted as important. And his first and greatest priority was people. Jesus was accessible to people. He would stop for anyone with a need. He never let schedules get in the way of serving. People didn’t get in the way of his ministry, they were his ministry.

In one of his most powerful parables, Jesus told the story of a Jewish man who was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first two men to pass by were a priest and a Levite. Their priorities were in their destination, they had a schedule to keep and obligations to fulfill, they couldn’t be delayed or bothered by the needs of a man, regardless of how desperate his need might be. And so they walked by on the other side of the road. The irony is that the one who does stop and help the man is a Samaritan, a man who could have easily excused himself and refused to help on the basis of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans. Instead, he stops and cares for the man and then goes the extra mile in paying for his continued care once they arrive in Jericho. The Samaritan is commended by Jesus for his willingness to be a neighbor to the man in need. The implicit condemnation is upon the priest and Levite who were too busy to stop and help.

If we are self-absorbed and focused on the busy-ness of the day, we will find ourselves walking on the other side of the road instead of kneeling down to take care of the needs that are before us.

3) Be willing to do whatever it takes

The quickest path to being a servant is to look for what needs to be done. Some folks like to specialize and take a smorgasbord approach to serving – a little of this, a little of that, ugh-none of that for me. Some wait to be asked, and if no one asks they won’t volunteer. Some jobs they like and feel comfortable with, others aren’t their cup of tea.

And certainly one should be aware of his gifts and strengths and be a good steward of how God has equipped him. But my favorite people are those who are willing to do whatever needs to be done and are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

If they see some trash on the floor, they pick it up, if there are dirty dishes in the sink they wash them, if there’s a job that nobody else is willing to do, they’ll jump in and do it to the best of their ability. They don’t mind getting their hands dirty or doing menial jobs or worry that others won’t think they’re doing it right. They aren’t the starting pitcher, or person in the limelight. They are the utility fielder who is willing to play wherever the coach needs them. And they do it with grace and humility.

They don’t wait to be asked and they don’t care if their work goes unnoticed. They are servants looking for ways to be of service to God wherever they are needed.

4) Find your passion

The most enthusiastic servants I know are those who have found their passion and pursue it. They have a confident sense of what their gifts are and have found a place in God’s kingdom to use them. Sometimes they plug into an already existing ministry, other times they see a need and develop a ministry to fill it. They not only love to serve, but they enlist others to join them in their ministry. And their enthusiasm is contagious.

That’s what God intended ministry to be – knowing your gifts, finding your passion and pursuing it with all your heart.

5) Don’t wait until you feel like it.

A professor of mine used to say, “It is easier to act yourself into a better way of feeling than to feel yourself into a better way of acting.” Many Christians have never developed a lifestyle of service because they’ve never really tried it. They toyed with the thought, they half-heartedly ventured near it, but they never really dove in and gave their heart to serving. And because all they did was splash their feet in the shallow end of the pool, they never really understood the fullness of life that comes with it. They thought that it would demand too much, be too costly, infringe on their lives more than they were willing to give, and so they held back.

In order to experience all of the joy and fulfillment that comes with a life of serving, you have to dive in and serve. You can’t wait until you feel like it, you can’t put it off until you are ready for it, you simply start serving, with a whole heart and a surrendered life. And when you do that, you begin to understand why Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

And so, when John begins this story of Jesus serving his disciples by washing their feet, he said, “He showed them the full extent of his love.”

 It comes down to basin theology. Do you remember what Pilate did when he had the chance to acquit Jesus? He called for a basin and washed his hands of the whole thing. But Jesus, the night before his death, called for a basin and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. It all comes down to which basin you decide to use.