In John’s gospel, 12 chapters and three years have passed, three Passover Festivals, between our first sighting of Jesus walking along the Jordan river among the newly baptized and the beginning of this lengthy, narrated night. Jesus’ public teaching is now complete. The majestic, mystifying I Am statements have done their work – many have come to believe. Seven signs – seven divinely powered events of healing and feeding, walking on water, turning water to wine, calling Lazarus out of his tomb – are complete. The remainder of his conversation will be among those whom Jesus calls his “own.”
The basic plot line of these years has not strayed from what we learned in the beginning. Jesus provided an abundance of finest wine from well water at a wedding feast, and Nicodemus came through the dark of night, wanting to know, yet not able to see that God’s love is not defined by laws and rituals and prohibitions.
The high priest has now called for Jesus’ death. The raising of Lazarus was the final straw. It created too much buzz, too much proof, too many witnesses – and there is Lazarus, himself, walking around and talking about it. The inner circle of Jews fear for their nation, fear Roman oppression, and fear this unpredictable, table-turning, exuberance of grace they cannot envision or make room for in their belief.
“Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews,” we are told at the end of chapter 11, “but went from [Bethany] to a town called Ephraim in the hill country near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
“Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”
Outside, it is night and the powers of darkness churn. Inside the narrative, a single evening stretches for five chapters until a cock crows at daybreak and Jesus is handed over to Pilate. This is a long goodbye in which Jesus comforts his friends and prepares them to live as he has loved.
It begins with a foot washing – but not the one best known for its place on Maundy Thursday. It begins with the one 6 days earlier, in chapter 12.
“Six days before the Passover Jesus returned to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, she anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. The entire house filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
(Hold that in mind.)
from the 13th chapter, the proper reading for the day
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. 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 supper, 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 he had tied.
Jesus 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, “Lord, not only my feet then, 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 one who was to betray him….
After Jesus 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 should do as I have done to you. ….If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Love is the first main verb in Greek of the opening sentence of this chapter. It comes at the very end, rising out of a sea of subordinate clauses. “Before the feast of the Passover, having known that his hour had come that he should pass from this world to the Father, having loved his own in the world, to the end, all of them he loved.” Love governs all of that, all that has come before, and all that is to come. Everything is subordinate to love.
Jesus kneeling to wash his disciple’s feet is his intentional response to it all: to the festival of Passover commemorating how the people were saved long ago, delivered out of death’s hand by the blood of the slaughtered Passover lamb, to the unfolding of Jesus’ hour, to the world beloved and dark outside the door, to Satan and Judas within the room, to Jesus’ own, his beloved.
The word for end in the phrase “he loved them to the end” will appear again in Jesus’ last words from the cross: “It is finished.” That completion, fulfillment, perfection of love is anticipated in the love enacted here, in Jesus washing the dusty, sweaty feet of his own.
Because he wasn’t supposed to. We get that from Peter’s shocked refusal and then extreme turn-around. Free people did not ever, under any socially acceptable standards, wash another free person’s feet. A basin of water and towel to wash one’s own feet was the customary duty of a host. In a wealthy household, a slave – typically the lowest female slave – might be on duty to wash the guest’s feet, but even that was rarely done. It was terribly shameful, denigrating behavior. And yet the gospel describes it in detail for us to notice. Jesus rose from the meal, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, knelt and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wiped them with the towel he had tied.
Then Jesus offers the commentary: that he has radically altered the model of teacher and Lord and service, offering a new view into the mystery of love’s fulfillment on the cross. We are to love one another as Jesus has loved us.
And Mary already has.
What Jesus did for his disciples, Mary did for Jesus without instruction or demonstration at the meal held in his honor six days earlier. She fulfills Jesus’ commandment to love before he even teaches it. She becomes a true disciple, a servant of devotion and ego-emptying love in anointing Jesus’ feet. Use of the same language ties the two episodes together. Mary’s adds a sensory overload, an act of self-abandon – kneeling before her beloved Lord, pouring expensive perfume over his feet, wiping it over them using her hair… can you imagine what that would feel like? We are told the smell of nard – the perfume of her love and devotion – overwhelms the house. Mary’s act illustrates the gospel’s vision of the new life of lavish, slavish service to be lived by those who would embrace Jesus’ life and death and become children of the living God.
I’ve been noticing and wondering about the role of women in this gospel. They seem to be the ones who know intuitively that Jesus is the Son of God. They always seem to be the true disciples. Without a birth narrative of any sort, we don’t have any way of knowing what Jesus’ mother knew or didn’t know about him. But she was the start of it, telling the servants at the wedding in Cana to do whatever he told them. The Samaritan woman at the well presents the exact opposite image of Nicodemus in receptiveness to Jesus and acceptance of his truth. Martha is the one to say, “Yes, Lord I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Her sister Mary demonstrates this model of true discipleship in taking the form of a slave at Jesus’ feet. Women stand at the foot of the cross as grieving witnesses of his death, and Mary Magdalene is the one who discovers the empty tomb, runs to the tell the others and then stays behind weeping in the garden when the men have gone. Therefore, she is the first to see the risen Lord when he calls her by name.
We can’t know why the author of John’s gospel wrote it this way – what the role of women was in the early Christian Jewish communities. I suspect, however, that, rather than elevating women (which might be our hope or agenda), the intention was to do the opposite – to show the scale and scope, to show how low, the incarnate word of God would sing. The apostle Paul had written by the time of this gospel of the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love, the fulness of God’s grace. In Philippians he recorded an early Christian hymn that ‘Christ, being in the form of God, did not exploit his divinity, but emptied himself, and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
And since characters in this gospel of John are representative forms, not necessarily historically accurate individuals, women, too, fill a symbolic role. Because it isn’t only the women who get it – it is women and the weak and wounded, the broken and outcast. It is those who fill in the bottom of society’s fruit bowl – fishermen, lame, blind, hungry, Samaritans, a royal official who came begging for the life of his son – and these mostly unmarried, marginalized women. In part, the prominence of women shows that discipleship doesn’t conform to stereotypical assumptions – there is no naming the twelve male disciples in this gospel. Jesus is teacher to individuals, like Mary, whom he loves and who love him and live out of that love. It is perhaps true that Jesus makes more sense to those who desperately need a change in the system, a light shining in their shamed darkness, and have no ego or education or standing to blind them. They are primed by the hardship of life to feel love.
There is a radical equality in what Jesus does bending to wash our feet – in effect saying we are all equal here at the bottom. All equal in the eyes of God.
Jesus insists on washing the feet of Peter, knowing full well that Peter will deny him when the pressure is on. Jesus stoops to wash the feet of Judas, knowing full well that Judas has already conspired to betray him to the Pharisees and Jewish officials.
Meda Stamper writes in her commentary on the Narrative Lectionary:
“How hard it can be to accept that we are Jesus’ own, that we are already clean, and then to accept that God continues to cleanse even the parts of us that we consider most unworthy of his gaze, the less lovely parts we’d prefer to hide away under layers of our best selves. But God who sends light into the impenetrable darkness of the world is certainly not daunted by our small brokenness, and love is the best answer to every hurting stinky thing in the world. It is God’s answer and Jesus’ answer, and it is to be ours.”
Love is to be our answer.
All of John is the story of God’s love for the world. Our participation in the vulnerable, mysterious, life-giving love of God begins with Jesus humbling himself and us, making it possible for us to function as his servants, his sent ones, his friends – as reflections of his light in this conflicted world God loves. It’s not necessarily going to make us feel good. Clearly from all we know about Jesus, the love God sent him to bear for the world was not an emotional high. And there aren’t “How to” manuals for servanthood, no self-help books for serving the reign and realm of God. You will need to find your own way of living into this costly, fragrant love. But openness to Christ, to the Spirit’s urging, lessening the pull of ego-maintenance and self-entitlement are helpful first steps.
Those who want to walk the path of Jesus will find the Way. Look down. That’s where God’s love is leading.
- many ideas and a few beautiful phrases come from Meda Stamper’s commentary.