Sunday’s sermon: Testimony is Hospitable

Text used – John 13:1-17

  • “Come on in. Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you something to drink? Water? Coffee? Diet Coke? I’ve got some crackers and cheese … some Rice Krispie bars … some freshly-baked cookies … lunch … dinner. The weather’s nice. Let’s sit out on the deck and enjoy the sunshine. OR It’s so chilly today. Can I get you a blanket?” And so, so many more ways we try to extend hospitality. So many ways that we welcome people into our homes – into our most intimate and familiar spaces.
    • We understand the cues that we receive from people here because they’re the cues that we grew up with … but that’s not always the case for others
      • Lots of varied hospitality customs around the world → some counter to each other![1]
        • E.g. – tipping in many industries here in the U.S. (esp. the hospitality industry – restaurants, hotels, transportation services, etc.) is not only expected but those wages are relied upon by those working in those industries BUT in other countries – South Korea, for example – tipping is considered an insult
        • Even more widespread e.g. – pointing → We don’t worry too much about pointing here (as long as you’re not pointing at someone for some obnoxious or disrespectful reason). But in many other places around the world, pointing in some form or another is considered distinctly more rude if not downright offensive.
          • Malaysia and Indonesia: pointing with your finger = incredibly offensive
          • Many countries in Africa: pointing is only done when what you’re trying to indicate is an inanimate object, never used for people
        • Not just actions and gestures that can be difficult to navigate from one culture to the next → Is anyone familiar with Howard Mohr’s book How to Talk Minnesotan[2]? It’s a tongue-in-cheek cultural guide to all things Minnesotan written by one of the original writers and guest voices on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” One of my favorite explanations in it is Mohr’s description of waving at someone when you pass them on the road. You don’t wave with your whole hand and definitely not emphatically! That’s far too emotive for us Minnesotans. You keep your hands on the steering wheel and raise your pointer finger … maybe your pointer and middle finger together, but never more than that. And if you happen to pass the same person on the road later that same day, you definitely don’t need to wave again. That’s excessive. And we laugh at things like that, but I have to tell you that when my mom moved to Minnesota from New York more than 40 yrs. ago, many of these cultural standards were completely foreign to her.
          • Funny story: one of Mom and Dad’s first dates → Dad showing up at the wrong time → “dinner” lunch vs. “dinner” supper
    • Sure, we can laugh at crossed wires when it comes to hospitality customs because at least these ones weren’t serious breaches of cultural expectations. But in our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus crosses the wires of a much more serious hospitality custom … but he does so with a definite purpose, a holy intention.
  • Today’s story = probably one of many people’s favorites → There’s both a tenderness and a comforting insistence in Jesus’ words and actions in this passage.
    • Gives us some poignant and essential context at the beginning
      • Gives us the time: just before Passover – the last Passover that Jesus would celebrate with his disciples in that upper room
      • Even more powerful – gives us insight into Jesus’ mind and heart: Jesus knew that his time had come to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them fully.[3]
        • Gr. “love” = agape love, love of goodwill and compassion, unselfishness and humanitarianism[4] → This is the love that does for the other – does whatever for the other – not because you have to but because they are human and you are human and that common ground stirs you to action.
          • Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: It is God’s divine love or human love that mirrors God’s love. → And in Jesus’ case – in the case of the Son of God who was both fully human and fully divine – maybe it was even both: God’s divine love and the human mirroring of that love.
        • Gr. “he loved them fully” = lit. “to the end, he loved them” → There is a sense of purpose and completion to this phrase. It tells us that, at least in Jesus’ own mind (as much as the gospel writer could know or guess of it, anyway), Jesus felt that there was no more he could give … no greater he could love … nothing left undone in his relationship with those closest to him.
    • Also provides some dark foreshadowing for us – text: The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus.[5] → Even before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday … even before that Last Supper when Jesus would call out the truth that one would deny him and one would betray him … even before Judas’ fatal deal with the chief priest and ill-fated kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane that would point Jesus out to those sent to arrest him … even before all that, here in this sacred moment, betrayal was already stirring in Judas’ mind and heart.
  • Central action of today’s text: [Jesus] got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.[6]
    • Rev. Dr. Ginger Barfield, Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies and Theology at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina, helps us understand the cultural context of this a bit more: The foot washing as an Ancient Near Eastern rite of hospitality is not an unexpected thing to encounter in a scene such as this. In fact, foot washing was customary. John’s portrayal is not typical, though, because of several factors: the person of lower status should wash the feet of the higher-status guest. Jesus flips this; the foot washing should happen as guests arrive. As the guests are already at the table, another routine is disrupted; this should be a simple and unobtrusive act. Jesus’ washes feet at the table and converses during and after about the act.[7]
      • Let me ask you a question. Does this idea make you feel uncomfortable? Not in the abstract sense, but if you close your eyes and imagine yourself in this midst of this story … imagine yourself sitting there with the disciples … imagine Jesus moving slowly and purposefully from one person to the next, gently and carefully washing and drying their feet before moving on to the next … imagine Jesus finally moving in front of you, kneeling before you, washing your feet, drying your I want you to picture it for a moment. I want you to hunker down in this story for a moment. Feel the water on your feet. Feel Jesus’ hands, steady and earnest. Feel the rough towel. As you sit with that image … with that feeling … let’s venture into a little foot theology.
        • Rev. Kathleen Long Bostrom, prolific author of both adult and children’s books and honorably retired PC(USA) pastor gets right down to it for us with this passage: With very few exceptions, we do not consider feet to be the most attractive parts of our bodies. … Because we use feet every day, all the time, they take quite a beating. … Feet are usually not a very pretty sight. Yet feet are the object of wonder when a baby is born. “Look at that tiny foot!” we say, “Those tiny toenails!” … Barefoot babies are adorable; barefoot adults, not so much. … [Yet] how wonderful it is to have one’s feet washed, after all that those feet have been through. Because the footwashing comes at an unexpected time, the disciples know immediately that this is something out of the ordinary. It is a remarkable act of tenderness at a point in time when the disciples need a little TLC. Like the woman who anoints and washes Jesus’ feet, Jesus pauses at the cusp of his own anguish and tends to his flock. They will not soon forget what he does for them on that dark night.[8] → In this action that to us seems both intimate and strange, both loving and disquieting, Jesus in literally putting hands and feet to his faith. He is embodying his love for his disciples in the most incarnate way possible: by washing the road dust and weariness off their travel-worn feet. It’s not his job. It’s not his place. But it is his testimony. It’s his witness to how great and all-encompassing the love of God is – a love big enough to kneel down and wash even the dirtiest, most bedraggled feet. No matter who they are … no matter where they’ve been … no matter what they brought with them – what dust they carried, what muck they walked through, what callouses they bore … through his actions, Jesus tells them God’s love story for them.
  • But Jesus’ testimony doesn’t stop at his actions in our passage this morning.
    • First = Peter’s reaction → You see, by his very nature, Peter is dramatic enough, bombastic enough to point out in no uncertain terms just how counter-cultural Jesus’ act is. Peter objects. : When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”[9]
      • Peter = trying to be humble (as loudly and ostentatiously as possible)
      • Peter = trying to be a servant
      • Peter = trying to do things “the right way”
      • But as so often is the case throughout the gospels, Jesus has other plans – plans that Peter can’t even begin to understand … yet. Not for lack of trying, though.
        • Peter’s attempt to understand after Jesus tries to explain = both amusing and endearing: Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” → All we can do is shake our heads. Oh, Peter.
        • Jesus’ response makes it clear that Jesus’ actions are enough
  • Passage concludes with Jesus giving the disciples their own charge → Jesus is speaking to his own story but also intertwining his story with that of the disciples. He’s instructing them to carry on his thread of love and humility – text: After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.[10]
    • Rev. Trygve David Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Michigan: In the foot washing, like the incarnation, the method is the message. In the washing of the disciples’ feet Jesus chooses to empty himself rather than to promote himself. This act of humble service and submission is the church’s model of mission into the world, the means by which God’s “glory” will be experienced by all who will follow after Jesus has gone to the Father. The genius of this strategy is that everyone can do it – whatever rank, title, gender, or race – all can serve another. If we did, this strategy would allow God’s glory to shine into every life. Hence this foot washing is more than a humble act of deference; it is a sermon to the world about how to love.[11] → Jesus’ testimony in this moment – the faith story that he tells both in his words and his actions – is a story of humility, a story of servanthood, a story of love, a story of grace. It’s a story that’s true. It’s a story that’s powerful. It’s a story that’s worth telling. Again. Amen.

[1] Lily Cichanowicz. “11 Surprising Customs from Around the World” from Culture Trip, https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/12-surprising-customs-from-around-the-world/.

[2] Howard Mohr. How to Talk Minnesotan. (New York: Penguin Group), 1987.

[3] Jn 13:1.

[4] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/john-131-17//

[5] Jn 13:2.

[6] Jn 13:4-5.

[7] Ginger Barfield. “Commentary on John 13:1-17” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jesus-washes-feet/commentary-on-john-131-17-3.

[8] Kathleen Long Bostrom. “John 13:1-11 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 110, 112.

[9] Jn 13:6-8a.

[10] Jn 13:12-17.

[11] Trygve David Johnson. “Holy Thursday: John 13:1-17, 31b-35 – Homiletical Perspective” from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 275.