The Messiness of Washing Feet

SCRIPTURE (John 13:1-15)

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come
to pass from this world to the Father.
He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.
The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper,
fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power
and that he had come from God and was returning to God,
he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.
He took a towel and tied it around his waist.
Then he poured water into a basin
and began to wash the disciples' feet
and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,
"Master, are you going to wash my feet?"
Jesus answered and said to him,
"What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later."
Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet."
Jesus answered him,
"Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me."
Simon Peter said to him,
"Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well."
Jesus said to him,
"Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed,
for he is clean all over;
so you are clean, but not all."
For he knew who would betray him;
for this reason, he said, "Not all of you are clean."

So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, "Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another's feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do."


washing feet 2.jpg

Last fall my theology classes were discussing the mission and message of Jesus.  They were asked to read a number of scripture passages and summarize the mission of Jesus.  When we read the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet I announced very seriously that we were going to ritualize this story and reenact what Jesus asked us to do in John’s Gospel- wash one another’s feet.  There were looks of panic, anxiety and disgust.  More than likely a few moans came out as well.  They did not want to wash anyone’s feet.  As we discussed the idea they explained their reaction to foot washing.  A few thought it was weird, others said it was gross, some felt it was humiliating and beneath them and many felt it was a little too close for comfort.  They are right.  They are not any different than Peter.  Peter knew that the action Jesus was taking was beneath him and it was humiliating.  Put yourself in first century Palestine for a moment.  You would walk everywhere on dusty, dirt roads shared by animals.  Who knows what you may have stepped in.  Your feet would be disgustingly dirty.  For these reasons, it was common, upon entering a house to have your feet washed.  It would have been done by a servant or more specifically a slave.  It was not the work of the one you are hoping might be the Messiah.

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

It is fascinating that this is the action Jesus takes at the meal during which he asks his disciples to remember him.  For those of us who lament that we live in a post- Christian world perhaps it is because WE have forgotten.  Jesus makes it clear, through this radical gesture, designed to keep his memory alive, that Eucharist and service are entwined.  It is meant to empower us to remember Jesus by serving others.  His disciples would have certainly made this connection.  Serving others is what Jesus did.  Jesus was intimately involved in the messiness of the lives of lepers (who were outcasts) prostitutes (who were ridiculed) and tax collectors (who were hated.)   In the movie Entertaining Angels, about the life of Dorothy Day, there is a scene when she is at her wits end.  She walks into a Church and talks to Jesus on the Crucifix and says, “these brothers and sisters of yours, the ones you want me to love, let me tell you something.  They smell.  They have lice and tuberculosis, Am I to find you in them?  Well you’re ugly, you drink, and you wet your pants, and you vomit.  How could anyone ever love you?”  When we listen to the words “do this in memory of me,” when we eat the bread and drink the cup, this is the Jesus we are to remember- the one who is relational, involved, loving and willing to get messy.  This is the Jesus we will find in service to the poor, whether they are deserving or not.  It is this service and love that was healing and redemptive- and remembers.

Alas, too often we play it safe.  We receive the Eucharist, accept the beliefs of the Church, are nice, kind and decent people.  When we do serve, we pour the milk or dish out the mac and cheese at the soup kitchen; maybe even say a few words to the people we help.  Then we go home.  Our Christianity is neat, controlled and clean.  Those are all good things, but are they enough?  Is this the Jesus we are to remember?  Over the years I have shown a scene from a documentary about the life of Mother Teresa.  In this video the viewers see her working in the hospital.  She cleans the beds, feeds patients, bathes them, speaks with them and touches them.  Quite frankly I would be physically able to do everything she did.  And yet I do not.  Maybe I don’t make the time or perhaps I don’t want to deal with the smell. Maybe I am afraid I will be drawn into a relationship or responsibility that will take my life in a direction outside my control.  The struggle is internal- and this is why I need Eucharist.  Jesus, in the Eucharist is the food, the nourishment that empowers us to honor and worship him by becoming like him.

Discovery House ad.png

These Lenten reflections are written by friends of 12plus1, Inc.  Discovery House, a service-based gap year experience for participants ages 18-20, will begin August 2018.  Please share this information with an individuals who may want to participate or support this new ministry.



  • How have you experienced the connection between Eucharist and service?
  • What has been a memorable/positive service experience for you?
  • What obstacles prevent you from serving others?
  • Whose ‘feet might you wash’ today?


PRAY to know where you are being called to help others.

FAST from ego and control so that you can be humble to step forward and help someone in need.

ALMSGIVING make a commitment to schedule a regular time of service on your own with family at a specific location.  Book this time in your calendar and keep it sacred.  (weekly, monthly).  


Joe and SorenJPG.JPG

Joe Nettesheim is the founder and director of 12plus1.  He has been involved in Church Ministry since 1991.  He and his wife Maribeth have a blended family of 5 children, 2 sons in-law, 6 grandkids and a crazy 80 pound Golden Doodle, puppy TS Eliot.