Faith In Real Life Blog

“Wash One Another’s Feet”

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

March 16, 2023


John 13:1-29

13 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already decided that Judas son of Simon Iscariot would betray Jesus. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from supper, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had reclined again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, slaves are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur you may believe that I am he. 20 Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”


This narrative is about much more than foot washing. The foot washing was an illustration to communicate to the disciples what Jesus had been talking about his entire ministry.  While the synoptic gospels focus upon Jesus’ offering up himself—” This is my body broken for you…”, John focuses upon what that sacrifice means in ordinary life.  As Jesus puts it: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  Our job is to see how this example extends into lives. There are several real-life applications.  But to see them, we need to pay attention to the timing of the event, who was included and the inversion of secular values that this action represented. 

To conflate the Gospel accounts, “On the night he was betrayed, Jesus washed the feet of all of his disciples.”  Jesus knew “his hour had come” and he knew that he would be betrayed by one of his closest associates.  Imagine sitting at a meal with your closest friends knowing that you were about to be falsely accused, arrested, and killed.  And worse, the betrayal leading to your death was by one of the men at your table.  I don’t think I could swallow food much less eat a meal and continue to teach. But that is what Jesus did.  Jesus knew someone at the table would betray him, and maybe who was most likely to—but he didn’t actually have to know it was Judas at that moment.  Because for Jesus, the ‘who’ did not matter.  He reached out to every disciple regardless of their understanding or ill intention. 

One of my brother’s recently asked if I remembered our last conversation.  I did not know what he was referring to and asked.  His answer was, “There is no need to talk about something you don’t even remember.”  He obviously was offended but would not respond.  I wrote what I thought was a conciliatory email to try to engage him but he has continued his radio silence —and, as I know second hand, he has spoken quite negatively about me to other family members. I still don’t know what he is angry about.   After a few days of righteous indignation on my part, I realized that in real life, if someone in my circle is unhappy with me but is unwilling to speak directly, there is little I can do.  They have every right to see me differently than I see myself. I cannot control what others say or think about me.  That awareness has allowed me to ‘let go’ but sadness remains. Jesus’ example is that love does not demand reciprocity and is always a gift leaves me humbled.   I doubt however I would be able to metaphorically wash my brother’s feet.  Distance and time will have to suffice.  

Peter was his usual impetuous, misunderstanding self.  Jesus confronted and corrected him far more than Judas.  It was inconceivable to Peter that his Lord and teacher would take a role reserved for servants and worse still a role usually assigned to women.  That is not how a Lord and Teacher is supposed to act.  Peter’s understanding was secular and Jesus quickly corrected him saying: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Peter did not understand that to follow Jesus meant sacrificing our self-importance and the many ways we try to claim our status in the world.  Love is what matters.  Rules, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, education—any of the categories we use to assign status make no difference to Jesus.  

Jesus says:  ..” 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.  “Go and do likewise” is the way to follow Jesus. The way to the life Jesus offered is a life of regard and service.  Jesus turned the concepts of Lord, Teacher and Messiah upside down.  His ‘simple’ example challenges the way we live and value life.  It is nearly impossible to imagine that our physical lives and our secular accomplishments are not the criteria for the life Jesus offers. Our physical lives are the instrument we use to participate in eternal life. No amount of exercise, good diet or surgery can reverse our aging. Our monuments and our legacy will be lost to time.   Jesus’ answer to the question:  “What is a life well lived?” is a life of regard and service.  That is the life that is eternal.  All else, including our physical bodies, will be lost.  

Another aspect of Jesus’ example is that, in its day, his act of service was quite ordinary.  What was extraordinary is that he broke convention by offering it himself.  Foot washing was as common as hand washing is for us.  It was part of daily life.  It was like changing diapers, emptying the dishwasher, or taking out the garbage. All of those things must be done, and Jesus’ example is that anyone can do them.   It is far from finished but we are breaking down the categories of gender roles.  Men can change diapers; women can be clergy.  Jesus sought to enhance and treasure each life.  He interfered with the secular values that trap people in a hierarchy of worth.  Our job is to see beyond the way of the world to see the way of the eternal.  

That means following Jesus’ example.  We know that the very night Jesus was giving this last example to his disciples, he was arrested.  He kept loving, knowing he disappointed many; knowing even close friends would betray him and knowing his own death was imminent. His physical self had to die in order for us to see what eternal life looks like. Once again, that example is well beyond most of us.  But it is an example we can aspire to.  How, in real life can we follow?  Try something simple.  Notice and say thank you to any act of service offered to you.  That includes waiters, clerks and garbage collectors. It includes children, parents, and spouses.  Don’t slip into entitlement—” That’s what they are supposed to do”.  See the person in the job.  Take time to learn a name.  These are simple ordinary acts of regard and service.  They lead to new life.  

We are bound together by two universal truths.  We are mortal, fallible and all too often self-serving creatures.  And we are loved by God. When you know both, your life will be filled with humility and gratitude. Those are the pillars of spiritual life.  We will fall short.  We will fail— but do not let your inability keep you from doing what you are able.  

Jesus cares for us without regard to station in life, the state of mind of the receiver or the likelihood of reciprocity. Receive that love. Go and do likewise. 

Let it be so.