Cleansed by a Servant – Washing of Hands


March 13 – Second Wednesday in Lent

by Pastor Pete Scheele

Read John 13:4-17

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Grace and peace to you as you let Jesus wash away all your sins, from God our Father, our Suffering Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m sure that each of you have heard these words especially when you were a child and had just spent the day outside playing in the dirt. Your Mother is stand in the doorway and says: “It’s time to eat, everyone needs to come in and wash their hands.”  Then as you are all headed into the bathroom, your mother adds, “Don’t forget to use the soap.”

Now I can understand my mother’s insistence on me washing my hands when I came into eat because I was the typical boy.  I couldn’t keep myself clean.  If I wasn’t digging in the dirt, I was playing with something that was grease, rusty or filled with sap. Usually the dirt wasn’t just on my hands, for I had wiped them off many times onto my clothes. I must admit that I was one of those boys who tried to short cut the washing of hands before eating by splashing water across my hands and then wiping them on the nearest towel.  It was no wonder my Mother mandated hand washing with SOAP, for it kept the towels a little bit cleaner.

Now hand washing has been around for a long time, in fact back in the biblical times, people also washed their hands before meals.  But they washed up as much for ceremonial reasons as for practical or sanitary concerns.  You see, observant Jews recognized two kinds of dirt: physical dirt and also spiritual dirt.  The Super-religious Jews person of Jesus’ time (that is the teachers of the law and the Pharisees) ceremonially washed their hands before EVERY meal.  Most others, who were less strict, didn’t do that, however, everyone was required to ritually wash his or her hands before one very special meal, the highest ceremonial meal of the year, the holiest and most kosher meal of all, the Passover Seder meal.

In fact, ceremonial hand washing is embedded into the very ritual of the Passover Seder meal.  After everyone had gathered at the table, the head of the company – usually the host or father – had the honor of washing everyone’s hands. It is an honor like carving the turkey at the Thanksgiving Dinner.  He gets up from the table, puts a towel around his waist or over shoulder, fills a basin with water and returns to the table to wash everyone’s hands.

On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, the gospel writers tell us that Jesus shared the Passover Seder meal with His family, the disciples.  Luke’s gospel informs us that a dispute broke out at that time among the disciples as to who among them was the greatest (Lk. 22:24). Perhaps they were arguing over who would get to wash the hands of all the others. Maybe Peter and John thought that one of them should have the honor, since they had prepared the Passover supper itself (Lk. 22:8). In any event, the disciples were in the midst of a debate over who was the most important of the bunch.

Then it was, as they argued, that Jesus “rose from supper.  He laid aside His outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around His waist. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ FEET and to wipe them with a towel that was wrapped around Him.” (Jn. 13:4-5) Can you imagine what the disciples were thinking to themselves, “Oh, of course! How could we have been so foolish! Jesus is the one who should wash our hands.  He’s the most important one here.  He’s our Teacher.  He’s our Rabbi.  He’s our Lord. We’re only His disciples.  He’s the one who should wash our HANDS.”

But then Jesus did something completely astonishing.  When He brought the basin full of water to the table, instead of lifting it to their hands, He stooped down, got on His knees and began to wash their feet! The disciples were shocked.  They were stunned.  Important People wash hands as an honor, only the lowest of servants washes feet! Jesus was literally being a slave to them.

Back in biblical times, people either wore sandals or went barefoot.  Upon entering a house, they would be met by the lowest of servants, who would untie their sandals and wash the dust of the road off their feet.  Since the disciples had no servants, and none of them had volunteered for this menial task, especially at the Passover Seder meal.  So, their feet remained dirty as they reclined at the table, until Jesus began to wash their feet.

Try to feel the SHOCK. Try to understand the SCANDEL of it all. I mean, Jesus is the Rabbi, the master, the Lord! More than that, He is God! Imagine that! God doing the grunt work! The very God who created us out of the dust of the ground stoops down to wash the dust of the ground off their feet! No wonder Simon Peter blurts out, “You shall never wash my feet.” (Jn. 13:8)

But why?  Why was Jesus washing their feet? John tells us. ‘When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’  (Jn.13:12-17)

In this one act of foot washing, Jesus summarized the whole purpose of His ministry and His Mission to earth.  He was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy; that the Messiah would be a SERVANT, a humble, self-sacrificing servant who would give Himself in suffering and death for His people.  Hadn’t Jesus said just as much when He said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mk. 10:45) The Apostle Paul clearly got the message right as he writes, “Jesus Christ, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8)

Indeed, on the very next day this humble foot washer would allow His enemies to nail Him to the cross of Calvary to cleanse all of our spiritual dirt, the filth of sin from each of us! On that next day, early on Friday, another washing occurred, a hand washing. Immediately upon condemning Jesus to be crucified, Pilate summoned a basin of water and in front of the crowd plunged his hands into it, announcing, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (Mt. 27:24) How foolish! Here he is, a judge supposedly administering Roman justice, and he sentences to death a man he acknowledges to be innocent of any crime.  If anyone is guilty of Jesus’ death, it is Pilate.

Then again, none of us are innocent of Jesus’ blood shed on the Cross of Calvary either, and none of us are all that different from Pilate.  We too try to weasel out of our responsibility and pass the buck.  Yet, OUR sins and OUR iniquities sent Jesus to the cross of Calvary. In fact, we are just as guilty of condemning and killing Jesus as Pontius Pilate, the Chief Priests and the Roman Soldiers who pounded the nails into His hands and feet.  We all stand in need of a complete washing – not just our feet, but our hands and heads as well. The Lord of the universe died to cleanse all of us of all our sins (1 Jn. 1:7).  He has washed our whole being – our soiled hearts, our souls, our minds, our thoughts, our words and our deeds. They have all been washed away in the blood of Jesus, scrubbing us perfectly clean in the waters of our Baptism.

Jesus washed their feet that night in the Upper Room to get them and all of us, ready for the total cleansing He would do for us.  He also washed their feet as an EXAMPLE for us to follow.  Not that we must LITERALLY go around washing other people’s feet. He is saying that we should become SERVANTS to others, just as He was a SERVANT to us. Our lives as Christians are to be lives in service to others, following Jesus’ example.

The world measures greatness by being served, but God measures greatness by serving others. The greatest person ever to walk the dusty roads of this earth, came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many, to give us an example that we should follow as He has done for us. Jesus says to us, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (Jn. 13:17) You know the love of God in your life, so share the Love of God for you, by serving others with God’s Love. Amen.

Let us Pray: O Almighty God, You have sent Your Son, Jesus Christ to be our servant and to take our place on the Cross of Calvary so that all our sins would be washed away. Help us to bring the Good News to all the world, of how all our sins have been washed away by Your Son, our suffering Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.