John 13:1-15 (NRSVCE)
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. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So 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.
It’s Holy Thursday, which means it’s the day we practice the washing of the feet. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and telling them “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter certainly didn’t understand, as he refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. It’s not until Jesus tells him “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” that Peter finally agrees. He has a spectacular change of mind, in fact, as he goes from “You will never wash my feet” to “Wash all of me!” (paraphrasing that second one a bit) The disciples aren’t really sure why it is so important for them to allow Jesus to wash their feet. It isn’t until later that they realize this simple act of foot washing really encapsulates everything about what our walk with Christ is supposed to be.
Christ is our master, our teacher, our Lord. But Christ has come to serve, in a way that no mere man ever could. He has come to do the work that man can’t do for himself. He has come to save us. But that means allowing him to help us. He holds out his hand, ready to lift us up, if only we will ask—if only we will reach out and grab onto him. That is what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples here. Foot washing is the job of a low servant. Everyone wore sandals everywhere they went, and they lived in a place full of sand. Their feet were gross, and frequently had to be washed. They didn’t have the comforts of breathable-fabric socks with thick-soled shoes and arch support. They just had buckets of water to wash the filth off their feet when they came inside. This is not something a master does, it is something the servant does for his master. Jesus inverts this expectation precisely to make the point that his job, as a teacher, is to serve. And just as he does it, so too should we. We are to “wash one another’s feet,” which we do literally today. But also figuratively, in that we are meant to serve our fellowmen, and in that way we imitate Christ.
There’s one other thing I think is interesting from this passage. We see one mention of Judas. Jesus says that the disciples are entirely clean, because he has washed their feet. Then he pauses and says “though not all of you.” John mentions that Jesus was referring here to Judas, the one Jesus knew would betray him. But think of the implication there for a minute. Why would Jesus clarify like that? Because he washed Judas’ feet! Jesus knew what was going to happen. He knew “the devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray him.” But he still washed Judas’ feet! More than anything else in this story, I think this speaks the loudest. Jesus serves us, reaches out his loving hand to us, even if he knows we will turn our backs on him! He humbles himself below the worst of sinners (remember how Jesus said yesterday that it would be better if Judas had never been born), because he loves us that much. There truly can be nothing more comforting than realizing the lengths to which Jesus will go for our sake, even if we despise him!