The last week I have been thinking about Jesus’ Last Supper and the way He washed His disciples’ feet. His last supper. We make it into this super spiritual event, like it holds magic. Guys. This was just another dinner on Passover for his guys. This wasn’t abnormal for them (OK, so riding into the city on a donkey with people shouting ‘Hosanna’ was a little abnormal).
The normal was for them to walk around all day with Jesus preaching, healing people, and then going to someone’s home to have a meal. The normal was to enter a home and have a servant wash their feet for them. They wouldn’t even notice the servant. It was part of life. I’m sure they would hold conversation with each other while their feet were being washed like we do as a host takes us to our tables or a server brings us our food or refills drinks. They’re part of the background that no one notices.
I want to notice the servant/slave today. I want to notice the feet they clean. I want to notice the streets they walk in. But not in a super-spiritual way.
Let’s talk about streets. In our modern world, we have roads in most places. Those roads, at least in the US, have decently little trash and there’s really not too much dirt on them. We have sewage systems that discreetly move our waste to the places it’s supposed to go without us even noticing.
When I lived in Egypt, I went out into a village over Ramadan. Now think. This is the modern-day Middle-East where Jesus grew up (OK, so it wasn’t modern then). Many people live in very similar homes to what was built back then, others have built small apartment buildings with low-level sewage systems. Most of these people are poor, and if something breaks, it doesn’t always get fixed immediately.
I was walking through the dirt streets, off the main road. There were kids playing bare-foot and chickens running around. There were people drying out figs on their doorsteps and moms shaking out rugs. There were also a number of sewage pipes that had broken and sewage running across the path in multiple areas.
Egypt isn’t anything like the Mid-West. In the Mid-West, we have beautiful rainstorms that sweep through at least every few weeks. The smell afterward is one of my favorite things about living here. It’s fresh, invigorating, and cleansing.
It rained twice while I lived in Egypt. The second time was a 2 day storm that was bigger than any other storm recorded and, where I lived in Alexandria off the Mediterranean coast, was a disaster. Billboards fell off buildings and killed people, balconies filled with water and crashed down onto cars parked underneath. Waves were HUGE and crossed over the 6-lane carway that wove along the coast. This was not the usual.
The usual was the 5 minute rain we had once while I was there. I was SO excited. I missed home, seasons, rain, and green! I ran to the window after the rain, so excited for the after-rain smell!
I’m not sure I have ever been so disappointed or had my expectations met by the extreme opposite like this one.
Egypt’s land never has the dirt washed away (without power-washing sidewalks and cars). Instead of a beautiful, sweet aroma, I was met with the smell of car oil, trash and a hint of sewage.
This is what the roads were full of. I had walked in these streets every day for almost a year and stopped noticing what I was walking over. When my parents came to visit, I remember watching them, imagining my life through their eyes, as we walked over broken glass and layers of trash, that had accumulated over years, and disintegrated. I lived in a nice area!
These, friends, were the kinds of streets Jesus and His disciples walked through. When they talk about a servant taking off his outer robes and wrapping a towel around themselves to wash someone’s feet, it was so that their clothes wouldn’t get dirty from the other’s feet. Not only do feet smell, but these guys had walked the whole day. They were covered!
Side-note: People in other countries don’t have a full closet or two just for their clothes and another for their shoes. They may have 2-3 outfits if they’re lucky. So for a servant, who has even less than other people, keeping their robes clean was a big deal!
Another side-note: I understand that when we wash people’s feet during ceremonies now, it’s a symbol. But seriously. Those people’s feet were in socks and shoes with their feet fully covered as they walked from their house or a store to their car. People can barely handle that. Can you imagine what a servant or a slave went through? These guys wore sandals!
OK. So Jesus and the disciples had a pretty sweet day with Jesus on a donkey and people were loving them and trying to have Jesus sign their kid’s clothes. Then they go to this room they rented for dinner. There’s no servant, or, if there is, they don’t make an appearance in the story. They’re dirty from walking around the streets all day. Tired. Hungry. Ready to just chill.
Then Jesus. Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything as He starts getting ready to wash their feet? Like a servant, He’s not doing this to get their attention. He knows it will, but He’s making a point. Remember, any other person washing their feet would have been ignored like a server refilling your drink.
Can you imagine the silence that fell one by one as they realized what He was doing and stared?
Can you imagine the horror of having the most amazing Man you had ever met in your life come over, bend, getting wet and dirty because of the dirt He had already washed off your friends’ feet? Then He comes to you and wants to touch the dirtiest area of you? Know every piece of dirt you’ve been in today? Touch it? Put it on Himself? Use his hands to scrub at the stubborn spots?
I can’t even imagine. I mean, Peter tries to get Jesus to stop. Wouldn’t you? Can you imagine being OK with it?
This is the image Jesus wanted his disciples to think of when they thought of leading His people. This is the image Jesus wanted His disciples to replicate. This is what a servant looks like.
Then there is the Church today.
When the children’s pastor comes in asking for volunteers. Every week. And no man ever volunteers. Sometimes a woman does. When there’s trash on the ground and it stays there because it’s someone else’s job to pick it up. When there’s a serving opportunity and no one shows up because they don’t know the person they’d help. When someone new comes in and sits at a table and no one talks to them, or they come in late and sit at a table by themselves and no one sits with them.
This last week, the children’s pastor came in and needed a volunteer for 1st grade. Not to teach, just to be an extra person in the room. Since I’ve volunteered 3 of the last 4 times I made it to Sunday school, I gave people time to go first. No one moved. In fact, with the children’s pastor standing there, the person leading that morning started moving on. These are the super-easy serving chances.
As I packed my things up (after meeting a new person for the first time and then leaving her to fend for herself), I was really frustrated.
Guess what passage was taught to the 1st graders that morning? They learned that Jesus washed His disciples’ feet and that’s what following His example looks like.
God, who made Yourself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. We’re proud. We think other people should do the hard, ugly things or even the easy, small, unnoticeable, and we should serve and be noticed for how well we serve. Give us the courage to do the small things. Help us to notice those who serve around us. Help us notice people who aren’t like ‘us’. Help us to do the next right thing, even if that looks like picking up a piece of trash or being uncomfortable around people we don’t know or kids who make us uncomfortable.
We want to be more like you, to be humble servants. Remind us. Prompt us. Give us courage and strength so we can walk humbly with You. We want our service to make people notice You, not us.