“Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you….'” – John 13:8
I know it’s Easter — and Sunday at that — but I am still stuck on Holy Thursday and a phrase from the gospel which tumbles around in my head and heart: ‘Unless I wash you.’
I was eating Corn Chex during hurried morning devotions when the phrase first drew my attention. I’d read that passage in John’s gospel many times before — and heard it proclaimed. That phrase was just part of the exchange between Peter and Jesus where Peter goes overboard again, as usual. But Thursday morning, it led me on a journey of the heart.
The Good News translation is more specific. ‘If I do not wash your feet,’ Jesus answered, ‘you will no longer be my disciple.’ However, the New International Version and the New American Bible simply say, ‘Unless I wash you.’ That was the translation I heard a second time as I drove to work, and continued morning prayer with an audio meditation at pray-as-you-go.org. ‘Unless I wash you.’
I simply cannot imagine that Jesus and his disciples had begun their supper without washing. Transportation in those days involved walking or using animals which left smelly piles in their wake. Even though the Passover dinner was to be eaten ‘with your lions girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand’ (Exodus 12:11), they must have washed their feet and ritualistically washed their hands before sitting down to eat.
But Jesus loved these guys. John tells us this at the beginning of the passage, ‘He [Jesus] loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end’ (13:1). Jesus knows what’s going to happen. He knows he’s angered authorities; he knows Judas is going to help officials arrest him — because folks were identified differently 2000 years ago when photographs, fingerprints and DNA evidence weren’t around to help authorities. How is Jesus going to show his disciples his love?
The twelve chosen as apostles weren’t twelve whose lives had been changed by the miracles Jesus worked. None had been blind. None had been leprous. None had been healed. They were presumably present when he fed the multitudes, and some of them had undoubtedly been present to witness some of his miracles — for example, when he healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who then served them. But, what had he done for them?
I imagined Jesus, as we all do when we know death is approaching, remembering times when he felt loved. He remembered his mother tenderly washing his feet when he was a boy and came in after a rambunctious day outdoors. ‘Jesse,’ she would say as she held both of his feet in her hands, ‘sit still. Unless I wash you, you will not be able to sit down to eat with Abba and me.’ He remembered squirming around, anxious to be off and running again, not understanding why his feet had to be clean to put food in his mouth. He remembered his mother’s patience as she waited for him to settle down so she could wash his feet, and the peace that flowed through him as her love was expressed in that ordinary activity.
I imagined the memory prompting Jesus to get up, take off his outer garments and tie a towel around his waist. He would express his love for his disciples in a privately meaningful, but very ordinary activity. He would wash their feet as servants in the home of a wealthy man might wash the feet of their master, his family and their guests — or as a mother might wash the feet of her beloved son. He was touching them as he had never touched them before, with loving hands on their tired and calloused feet. He was caring for them, not with a grand miracle, but with a personal touch.
I was reminded of a quote from a slim volume by Kathleen Norris. In QUOTIDIAN MYSTERIES: THE LAUNDRY, LITURGY AND ‘WOMEN’S WORK,’ she writes, “We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were. We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places … and not in spectacular events.”
The washing of his disciples’ feet was the most ordinary and everyday of events, and yet it has, over time, become one of Jesus’ most powerful teaching moments. He went on to say, ‘If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow’ (John 13:14-15). We are to care for one another.
We are to show our love by caring for each other in the most basic of ways, in ordinary, everyday ways. That’s it. Folks don’t need us to work miracles; they just need us to reach out with love to open a door, extend a smile, offer a listening ear. They need us to recognize their humanity and to reach out to them with ours.
But, we can only know this in our hearts if Jesus has washed us, because that is what opens our eyes.