by Pastor Cherie Johnson
Today, our scripture comes from the Gospel of John. At this point in John, Jesus has been teaching and healing. He has gone to Jerusalem for his final Passover. He has been preparing the disciples and his other followers for his death. He does this by alluding to and speaking about it specifically. He also does it by telling them things that they will need to know after he is gone. Today’s Scripture is one of those practical theology lessons. How do we live it out?
The disciples have had Jesus with them as an example for two to three years, but they have been inconsistent at best. Soon Jesus will be gone. They will have to carry on. Jesus physically demonstrates what it means to be his disciple in a very intimate, personal way.
John 13:1-5, 14
1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Foot washing was a necessary thing after walking around the dry and dusty Palestinian roads in sandals. It was necessary not only for comfort, but for cleanliness for the person and the house. Usually, a host would provide water for a person to wash their own feet.
We see an example of it in Luke 7: 44 – 46.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.
Foot washing was considered one of the lowest jobs of the socio-economic system of the time. It was considered so degrading that a Hebrew slave could not be compelled to do it.
This is the context in which John the Baptist said that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. It was an expression of great humility. The woman who washed Jesus’ feet showed an expression of great love. A disciple might wash a masters feet. Here Jesus is doing it for HIS disciples.
The part that we don’t read in the Scripture today is Peter refusing to let Jesus carry out this service. Why? He thinks it should be beneath Jesus’ dignity to do this menial task. It’s interesting that as Peter exalts Jesus so, Peter will scold and advise Jesus from time to time, when he thinks Jesus is doing something to damage his standing or position. In Matthew 16: 22, Peter scolds Jesus when he is explaining his death and resurrection.
It’s almost like he’s an adviser for a political candidate. It is as if he’s saying, “You can’t keep talking about dying. You know I believe in you. I just said you are the Son of God, the Messiah, but you are not going to get new followers if you keep talking about dying. People aren’t going to follow someone they know is going to die.” And now, Peter is saying, “You shouldn’t be washing our feet. You are going to be king and drive out the Romans. You are too good, too important to do this job.”
Two things occur to me: 1) How odd it is to scold or refuse the command of a person Peter held in such high regard; 2) How degrading he thought it was for Jesus to do this job. Peter would have been happy to wash Jesus’ feet. Things would be in their proper configuration, but this was too much for him, his master touching, caring for his feet.
This example that Jesus provides is not only where disciples are drawn into relationship with with Jesus, but also with each other. It is suggestive of the love that we have not only with God but also with in our community and with our neighbors.
In a way it contrasts with what we focused on last week, serving in alignment with our spiritual gifts. Today, we’re talking about sacrificial service. For Jesus it is a preview of the ultimate sacrifice that he makes for his disciples, makes for us, as he says in John 15: 13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (NLT). We’ll get more into that next week. The point now is that while it is good to serve in are gifting, the things we like to do, the things we are good at, we are also called to serve in the ways that are required.
Martin Thielen tells a story about President Jimmy Carter is his book. Regardless of what you thought of him as president or if you thought about him at all, he is known as being a man of great faith. Now, many people may know him best through his work with Habitat for Humanity. Through his foundation and partnerships he has helped people around the world. Right now, he is recovering from treatment from brain cancer, but long after he left the White House he served his local church by mowing the lawn and clean the bathrooms every other month. Can you imagine? The retired leader of free world scrubbing toilets, by choice. 
Humble service, doing something because it needs to be done. What can be surprising is how gratifying it can be.
The levelling or equality about it, it forces us to recognize the humanity of every person. Jesus touches the man with leprosy in Luke 5: 12-13. It was against the law to touch someone with leprosy and for very good reason. It was contagious and an awful disease. It also meant that the people suffering from it had a wretched experience. They had to announce their presence to warn others by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” No one wanted to be around them. They never were able to experience the solace and compassion of human touch. But here, before he is healed, Jesus touches the leper, restoring his humanity, altering his world. Then, of course Jesus does heal him.
There are people now who feel just as isolated and alone, ostracized, feeling unloved and unworthy. We have the ability to change that, let them know that they are recognized as a full person made in the image of God.
It’s not checking something off a list. It’s not seeing someone as a project or even an object to be helped. That is a dangerous trap that many can get into in mission work. We can come in with our Western ideals of how things should be done or what should be important, according to our perspective or our world view. Of course once again having an outside power imposing their culture their priorities, not taking the local sensibilities into consideration. Going to whiz in for a week or two, solve all their problems, and whiz out. Going back to their comfortable life.
Gary Morsch is the founder of Heart to Heart and Kansas City. As a physician, he has done magnificent work around the world taking medical supplies to low income people. Several years ago, he took a trip to Calcutta and Mother Teresa’s House for the Destitute Dying. He took 90 volunteers and $12 million worth of medical supplies.
As he made the trip, he thought to himself, “A lot of these people don’t have to die. I can save their lives, and maybe we can turn it from the House for the Destitute Dying to the House for the Hopeful Living.” He was going to make that happen.
When they arrive, Sister Priscilla began to assign everyone their tasks. As this was happening, Gary put his stethoscope around his neck to let Sister Priscilla know he was a doctor. Everyone got their assignment and Gary found he was the last person. And he said, “Okay I’m ready Sister Priscilla what do you have for me to do?”
She directed him to come with her. They went through the women’s unit and didn’t stop to help anybody. They kept going and went through the men’s unit, and he thought this was where he was going to begin to help. But they walk through that unit, and he thought there must be people who are even more severely sick and need of help.
But instead, they walked into the kitchen. He asked, “What do you need for me to do here?”
She said, “Just follow me.”
They walked out the door, and he sees a huge pile of rotting trash. She hands him two plastic buckets and a shovel and said, “What we need you to do is haul this garbage to the city dump just down the street two blocks away. You can’t miss it.” She smiles at him and turns and walks away.
He stands there and thinks, “Did she not see my stethoscope. I’m a doctor! Doesn’t she understand what I can do with these hands?” In a silent shock and a bit of self-pity, he began wondering what to do. But there was only one thing to do. So all day, an esteemed doctor carried buckets full of rotting garbage to the city dump. At the end of the day, he was a sweaty smelly mess, but he moved the entire disgusting pile.
Upset and angry about the events of the day, Morsch headed back through the kitchen, the women’s ward, and then the men’s ward looking to collect his team and go back to where they were staying. As he walked back through these rooms, he couldn’t help but feel that his services should have been put to better use. Even helping in the kitchen would have been better than hauling garbage. And that’s when he saw it. Waiting to say a half-hearted goodbye to Sister Priscilla, Morsch noticed a small, hand-lettered sign that read in Mother Teresa’s own, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” That moment was a turning point for Gary Morsch. He said, “My heart melted. I completely missed the point. I needed this lesson. Serving others is not about how much I know, how many degrees are earned, or what my credentials are. It’s about attitude and availability to do whatever is needed – with love.”
Gary Morsch went on to become a dear friend to Mother Teresa, and he found a special purpose in life in helping other people. He brought many more groups back to Calcutta to minister to the poorest of the poor in India, and each time he took great satisfaction in seeing his team of volunteers impacted by the experience. He explained, “Often the volunteers come with the same kind of certainty, full of themselves, as I was. But every one of them is transformed in the act of serving others.”
It gives a real perspective check. Was it a waste of resources to have Dr. Morsch take the garbage to the dump? Was it that he simply needed to learn the lesson? I’ve seen this story on more than one occasion, and it never says whether he continued to move garbage through the rest of the trip or on successive trips. My guess is that he did not, but it did stop him from being “me” focused. The great things he was going to accomplish. It took away his pride. No, he was not too good, smart, important to take care of garbage. And the people of the House for the Destitute Dying are not garbage either.
While Dr. Morsch sounds grateful for the lesson that day, he doesn’t sound like he found joy in the experience. It actually sounds like a bitter pill he had to take to open his eyes. Grateful but not satisfied. Jesus says that we will be blessed, not necessarily satisfied, not necessarily fulfilled. I would hazard a guess that Morsch didn’t feel blessed, blessed to learn the lesson, blessed to give others the opportunity to learn lesson. Perhaps, after he got off the mountain of pride he was able to find joy in all forms of service.
What about you? Have you done that? Provided sacrificial service to someone or for a group? The truth is that I often feel exhilarated!
About 5 years ago, I went on a youth mission trip to western Virginia. We were in the small town of Marion in the heart of Appalachia. Our group’s job was to renovate an older woman’s house. The kitchen was unusable. There were large holes in the floor. We unskilled laborers scraped and painted the outside of her house. The people with construction experience worked on the structural integrity of the house. Just like the show Extreme Makeover Home Addition, our team of 20 had a week to complete our work.
We were getting down to the wire, and we were in the cleanup stage of the project. It was time to clean the bathroom. It was a disaster area. The tub looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in 15 to 20 years. You can barely tell that the porcelain was white underneath. As it happens, I am an expert at bathtubs. With several years as a maid both in hotels and private homes, if nothing else, I learned how to make a bathtub shine. I spent two solid days on that bathroom as a whole. It was as if every bit of filth transferred from the bathroom surface on to me. But knowing that this sweet sweet woman would have a clean place that I had provided a true service for her made me feel so good, made me care for her even more!
It is the interaction with people, or maybe they don’t even know you did it, like with Jimmy Carter and the toilets. It’s knowing that what you did is going to have an impact whether they know it or not. People may not notice that the toilet is clean or the garbage is gone, but they will notice if those things are not taken care of. It’s good to serve. It gives meaning and purpose to life. It gets us out of our heads. No matter where you are at, there is a way to serve.
Is it good to serve in your gifting? Sure! That’s why God gave you the gift, to use it for God’s glory. I’m sure that Gary Morsch continues to save lives in his capacity as a doctor. However, sometimes, something just needs doing, and you are the right person in the right place at the right time that can do it. So, a doctor was transporting garbage to the dump a bucket at a time. That doesn’t mean that we are responsible or have the capacity to do everything, but we can make a difference. It can give meaning and purpose to our lives if we are feeling trapped in the superficial and mundane. That is part of the blessing. Not only what we’re doing for others, but how it affects us, changes us for the better. It doesn’t matter where we are at or our condition in life, there is always something.
Gus learned about the joy of service late in his life. Diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Gus went to a hospice facility. Upon arrival, Gus felt fearful and angry. “Why did I get cancer?” He asked, as if for some strange reason he should be exempt from the disease. “What does God have against me?”
One day Gus stomped down the corridor of the hospice unit, angry that he had not received the service he demanded. An event then happened that transformed his remaining months of life. As he walked down the hall, Gus saw a five-year old kid. He couldn’t believe his eyes: a five year old in hospice care.
He went to a nurse and said, “What is that kid doing here? This is a place where old people die not little kids.”
The nurse explained: “The child fell off a tractor, temporarily cutting off oxygen to her brain. The accident resulted in paralysis. She cannot talk or see. However, she is able to hear and respond to simple instructions.”
Gus stared at her through the doorway. He couldn’t fathom how something like that this could happen. “She’s only five years old,” he said repeatedly. He later learned that her parents lived 600 miles away and could only visit on weekends.
The next morning Gus again walked by the child’s room. “Who’s taking care of that kid?” He shouted at the nurses.
After his outburst a nurse replied, “Maybe you ought to do it.”
Shocked at the thought he went back to his room. But he couldn’t shake the question from his mind: who is taking care of that kid? Later that evening he put on his slippers and went into her room. He said hello to her but she made no response. He tried speaking to her a second time but, again, nothing. Finally he reached out, touched her hand, and took hold of one of her fingers. As he did, the little girl squeezed his hand. And in that moment Gus was transformed from a bitter, fearful, angry person into someone who could love and serve a five year old girl.
For weeks, Gus and the little girl “talked” to each other through handshakes. He read her stories and played her favorite music. He found a little red wagon, propped he safely in it, and took her on trips around the hospital. As time passed, they developed an intricate language of communication as they snapped their fingers back and forth.
“When Gus died,” said the nurse, “he died smiling. He was no longer Gus the fearful patient. Now he was the friend of a 5 year old girl.” 
Last week we asked, “Where is God in the world?” We talked about how God most often works through people relationally. This week we asked, “What brings fulfillment?” It is merely the other side of the coin. As we provide for the needs of others, either through our gifting, or simply because is something that needs to be done, and we can do it.
We can find fulfillment and purpose in life. We can get out of our own heads, preoccupied with our own wants and needs, and focus on others. So much more fulfilling than being self-obsessed.
What do you see that needs doing inside the church or outside it? How can you help other people recognize these things? We are forming or reforming a mission and outreach team. You can be a participant. It could be the place where you get to be the idea person. As Jesus showed us by his example, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13: 17).
Next week, we will be looking at Jesus’ is greatest sacrifice, as we focus on the problem and question of suffering.