avoiding the mess – or diving right in: John 13

read John 13.   When my English grandmother had a stroke, I would fly over for the weekend and sit with her in her hospital room.  The left side of her beautiful face was paralyzed, impeding her ability to smile.  Her left arm hung useless.  Her left leg barely moved.  She could just manage to wriggle her toes.

She was a woman whom, up until that moment, had never stopped moving.  She was one of the most important people in my life.  We stayed with her and my grandfather in their house in Hampshire for a month every summer until I turned sixteen.  I adored her.  She entertained constantly.  She loved people.  Everyone immediately told her their deepest secrets, because they sensed she was a practical, caring, sensible, compassionate person they could trust.  She bought me my favorite doll house furniture – which, yes, I admit, I still have in my daughter’s doll house.  She took me to every art gallery and museum in London.  She saved an oak chest full of wool blankets for us to drape over the climbing frame in the garden to make forts.  She knew that the true purpose of her rows of roses and other flowers was as a backdrop for Hide and Seek tag.  She made sure she always had an ample supply of jam sponge cakes for us to eat.   Her hair was always elegantly coiffed, and she wore silk dresses of beautiful designs.  And she never walked in London without stockings and glossy black pumps.

But after her stroke, there was only one thing I could do for her.  I could wash her semi-paralyzed feet.  It was something that neither of us would have dreamed of my doing for her until she was sick.   She would never have sat still long enough.  She would never have allowed time for me to tend her – after all, it was her job to tend to me.  And yet when she lay in that little hospital bed, in a large room that smelled of the urine of the other old people, with a window that looked out onto a beautiful blue cloud-filled sky, I took a towel, washed her feet, patted them dry, and rubbed lotion into them.  That experience now lingers as one of my sweetest memories.  It’s a bittersweet memory, of course, because I would much rather she’d never been sick.  But in this world, we don’t get to control that kind of thing.  What we can control is how we meet people in their vulnerability.  What we discover, there, is that they’re completely beautiful, no matter how paralyzed. What we discover there is the strange truth that we, too, are completely beautiful, no matter how paralyzed.

Which brings us to John 13, and this strange, lovely, hard to understand story of Jesus taking off his robe, tying a towel around his waist, and washing his disciples’ feet.  The reason I call this story strange is that it’s so very pedestrian.  It seems almost mundane.  It’s messy – literally.  Jesus, who acknowledges in this chapter with complete confidence that He is our “Lord” and our “Messiah,” washes dust and dirt off of the feet of His followers, and commands us to do the same.

I’d much rather he commanded us to have startlingly successful careers on t.v.  It feels like it would be so much easier.  Washing feet is the sort of thing you can’t control at all.  It has no glamour.  It has no glitz.  It really doesn’t even have any rhyme or reason.  We have no idea when other people will come wandering into our lives with dirty feet.  “Oh,” we’ll say, looking down and noticing dust on the clay feet of the person in front of us.  “Looks like you could do with a little help.”

“Oh, right,” they respond, looking down themselves.  “I am a little dirty.  Um, okay.  Fine.  Help sounds great.”

And that’s how it works.  That, apparently, is what glory looks like.  That’s love.  That’s the messy reality of washing other people’s feet.  And it’s the messy reality of how God wants us to let Him wash us.

As I discovered with my grandmother, sickness can allow us to get closer to people.  I was already close to her.   But her sickness allowed me to see her at her most vulnerable, and minister to her in her need.  We think we won’t enjoy that sort of thing, but when we do it, we discover we like it.  My grandmother told me that during the war, everyone in England had to go out and dig ditches together – the butchers alongside the Duke’s – and they discovered they liked it far more than they would have imagined.

What’s involved here is the casting down of pride.  We cling to our pride.  We think we need it.  But when we fall, and discover our weakness, vulnerability and need, there’s no room for pride.  I’m not just talking about my grandmother and her stroke.  I’m talking about the circumstances of our lives that knock us off course, and humble us to the point where we finally admit our need of God and others.  We reach out to God and friends out of desperation alone – and we discover it brings us closer to them.  We discover we like the intimacy that comes out of that experience.  We discover that asking for help brings unexpected joy, when we least expected it, and often when we least deserve it.

So why does it take us so long?  I don’t know, but I do know that whenever I ask for God’s help – which is far too often a cry of last resort – I discover that what He gives me so far surpasses anything I could have discovered on my own.  But we’re like toddlers, covered in mud, kicking and screaming that we don’t want a bath.  Once we’re hauled, or bribed, into the warm water, splashing around with our rubber duckies and battery powered divers, and tugboats and bubbles, we don’t want to get out – until the next day, when we go through the “no way no how am I having a bath I’m fine just the way I am” routine, all over again.

None of us really think we need cleansing, but we all do.  The most chilling aspect of this chapter is the moment when Jesus tells Judas He knows that Judas is going to betray Him, and that instead of changing his mind, Judas goes and does it anyway.  We are told that “Satan entered him.”  And “Judas left at once, going out into the night.”  John 13:30.

It’s a chilling verse because we know the feeling.  We know when we shouldn’t do something, and we go and do it anyway.  We leave at once, going out into the night.

But unlike other humans, who so often judge us for our journeys “into the night”, God doesn’t hate us for our waywardness.  Since God knows that we resist our baths – since He knows we can’t even really want to be cleansed without His help – He comes to find us. He knows we have stubborn hearts; after all, He made our hearts.  But He also knows, that like every dragon of old, we have a soft underbelly.  There’s a chink in our armor.  There’s a tender place where His arrows of love can pierce.

That tender place is the moment when someone gives to us when we least deserve it.  It’s when we expect condemnation, and we receive kindness.  It’s when we show up, covered in dirt, and someone washes our feet.  That’s why Jesus asks us to wash each other’s feet.   That’s why Jesus came to wash our feet.  He bends down and washes our feet, even though He knows that before “the rooster crows tomorrow morning,” we’ll deny we even know Him.  John 13:38.  Like Peter, we can promise God our undying devotion – and turn around and betray Him the very next minute.

Ultimately, what pierces our walls of pride is when we start to see, just a tiny little bit, that God forgives us. On the cross, Jesus experienced all the filth Satan could muster from his arsenal of hatred, so that God could cleanse our hearts.

Knowing that melts us.  We can acknowledge our fault to God once we understand how deeply He loves us.  It’s easy to tell someone who loves you what you’ve done wrong.  In contrast, we all get defensive when we think we’re being judged by someone.  God doesn’t judge us.  The judgment already fell on the One who didn’t deserve it, so that God could look at us and see His own perfection.

Admitting we need God’s help changes and heals us.  It enables us to sometimes, just sometimes, wash other people’s feet – and discover that we like it a lot more than we thought we would.  We all want to love each other – we just aren’t really sure how.  We need help getting into the mess of other people’s lives.  God wants to help us.  He wants to take our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh – a heart like God’s, a heart that can be broken.  Gen. 6:6.  He wants our hearts to be capable of being “stirred” and our spirits to be “moved.”  Ex. 35:21-22.  He wants, in short, to give us a tender soft heart that enables us to love other people and become so close to them we literally weep when they weep, and laugh when they laugh – hardly even noticing anymore who is “clean” and who is “dirty.”  When we allow God to daily cleanse us, by humbling ourself and admitting we fail, we discover we’re beautiful in His eyes, no matter how dirty we become and how deep the ditch into which we’ve fallen.  We discover that all we have to do is cry out for help, and we receive His beauty.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on June 2, 2012

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