Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet

August 20, 2023

Series: August 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet"


Scripture Reading(s) 

John 13:1-7, 13-15
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.’ 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.

            I love this gospel story of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. I love how focused Jesus is in his actions- how intentional He is as He is holding up the value of servanthood.

            And as I pondered the story, I realized that to more deeply understand the significance of Jesus’ actions here, it helps to know when this story occurred – meaning at what point in Jesus’ life and ministry did He perform this act because that is significant too. So, bear with me as I give you some framing.

            It is believed and documented that Jesus’ ministry lasted for about three years. He accomplished a lot in those three years. It started off small – Jesus and His 12 disciples traveling around the country. It grew over time. By the end thousands were coming to see him, following him around asking to be healed or to listen to what He had to say.

  • Because Jesus did a lot of healing
    • People who were sick
    • People who were hurting
    • People who were suffering from mental illness
    • He even brought three different people back from the dead.
  • He preached blessed are the poor the meek- not the rich, the powerful or the famous – but the poor and those who mourn.
  • He fed the hungry and taught people to care for others.

            As the ministry grew, the disciples became more and more excited. They knew Jesus. They lived with Him. They knew He was changing the world. Many were wondering aloud if Jesus were not the long-awaited Messiah. They must have wanted the acts of Jesus to go on forever. Not in their wildest imaginations did they see what was coming.

            Now don’t get me wrong, the disciples understood that going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover was risky. They knew the religious authorities were angry with Him. But Jesus was gaining so much popularity, they must have thought that they were safe that everything would be OK. Not in their wildest imagination could they have guessed that things would turn so deadly, so quickly.

            But Jesus knew. He knew how dangerous going to Jerusalem was. He knew that on that night – the night of this story – on that night the cross was only three days away.

            Reflecting on this passage, Rev. Guy Nave offers this insight.  “When I was a prison chaplain, I witnessed prisoners on death row say good-by to their loved ones.  The prisoners would often labored over the words they would share.  Every word and act that compromised their farewell was pregnant with meaning and significance, love and consolation, even hope and expectation. 

            And on the other side, despite society’s assessment and condemnation of their loved one, those gathered listened intently as though the words spoken were those of a divine oracle. [1]

            Today’s reading is similar to that. Jesus is on death row. They don’t know it yet. But He is. Jesus knows the cross is coming and so He begins His farewell to His disciples. His words and actions feel pregnant with meaning and significance. As we look back on them Jesus actions – what he did - are like a divine oracle – for them and for us – showing us all what is important.

            Scripture tells us that Jesus and His disciples were gathered around the table to share the meal - together like the family they had become. 

            Scripture tells us that before the meal began,

  • Jesus got up from the table and
    - took off His outer robe in a symbolic fashion.  
    - He then went over picked upa towel and
    - tied it around His waist.  
    - He poured water into a basin and
    - walked over to the disciples.  
    - There he knelt down to wash and dry their feet. 

            These verbs are active – got up, took off, walked over, picked up, tied, poured, knelt down, washed and dried – one after the other they seem to highlight that every single movement of Jesus is purposeful.This actis pregnant with meaning.

            To be clear, in Jesus’ day, foot washing was a standard act of hospitality. Most everyone wore sandals and walked along dirt roads where mud, trash and animal waste lingered.  By the time a person arrived for dinner, their feet were often caked with dirt that was unsanitary. 

            So, whenever a person entered a home, it was common for a basin of water and a towel to be offered to the guest so that they may wash their feet and hands.  This was not only for the comfort of the guests, but it also helped to keep the home they were entering into as clean and sanitary as possible.  

            The wealthy would offer a servant to do the job – providing a soothing, supportive relief for the traveler.

            The fact that the disciples had their feet washed was not unusual.  What was unusual, though, were the details of it.As I just indicated, foot washing was always done when a person arrived, but Jesus did it in the middle of a meal– highlighting the entire event.  Plus, this humble washing was either done by oneself or a servant – never, ever someone of status.  Here Jesus was their rabbi, their teacher – the one who was changing the world. It was Jesus kneeling at their feet.  The disciples were stunned – freaked out by what Jesus was doing.

            Thou Jesus had clearly modeled servanthood throughout His ministry, this particular moment is poignant. It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘I’m making it really obvious for you now.  But the truth is, I’ve been showing you all along

- every time I stopped to help someone in need,
- every time I encouraged us to continue though we were tired,
- every time I pushed past the authorities to do what need to be done to help the people, I was showing you that God does not sit up on a mountain somewhere removed and uninvolved.  God is here - right now –
- noticing people’s needs
- loving and caring for all of God’s people
– those who are
or suffering
or sick
or need their feet washed,

            God is here supporting us in all the moments of our lives.

            Plus, when I was thinking about someone kneeling down and washing my feet in addition to the fact that it is a humble act, I was aware of the intimacy of it – the vulnerability of the person whose feet are being washed.  To me that is a beautiful image of God – tending us in the most intimate vulnerable moment of our lives – supporting us each step of the way.

But it is not just servanthood that Jesus is modeling. He is modeling what is underneath – what motivates him and us to serve. He is modeling love. Caring about someone is showing love for them. Our passage says, “Jesus loved them to the end.”

            There is a sweet children’s book that I have been thinking about these past few weeks.  It’s called Guess How Much I Love You. Perhaps you are familiar with it. It has become a bit of a classic. The plot is simple: a baby rabbit – baby nutbrown hare and their parent – big nutbrown hare go back and forth trying to one-up each other by on how much they love each other.  I love you

  • this wide
  • I love you this high
  • I love you as high as I can hop
  • I love you as high as the tree

            And so on.  Over and over they trade off, each one making a more audacious claim about their love for the other.  In the end, the baby rabbit gets tired and falls asleep after declaring the longest, furthest distance he could imagine:  I love you all the way to the moon.

            And after the baby falls asleep, the parent rabbit says, “I love you all the way to the moon…. and back again.” [2]

            I have been thinking about this book a lot over the last few weeks as it applies to God’s love as the parent – loving is further than we can imagine – further than the moon and back. This is also the God who loves us. Who meets us where we are. Who loves us to the extent of our imagination. A God who loves us and cares when we are hurting, suffering – A God who loves us and claims us as our own – beyond our imagination - all the way to crossand back.

            And so, we too are to love and to model being a servant. As Christians we are called into community to care for each other and also to care for those beyond these doors.

            People who are hurting, hungry, in need of food and shelter, in need of prayer, in need of kindness. We too are to push back. We are called to be God’s and feet as a servant of Jesus Christ.

            Praise be to God. Amen.


[1] “Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, pg 277, Guy D. Nave Jr.

[2] “Guess How Much I Love You” by Sam McBratney. Illustrated by Anita Jeram