Wash feet: apply elbow grease

July 31, 2012 — 5 Comments

I took a shower the other day and as I did my usual soaping up. I noticed how dirty my feet were.

on the dusty way

Walking around the hot, dusty capital city in a developing country, with no car [or no desire to fight crazy drivers and traffic] my feet had gotten very dirty.

It reminded me of the time Jesus washed the disciple’s feet.

Jesus knew that the Father had given Him authority over everything and that He had come from God and would return to God.
So He got up from the table, took off His robe, wrapped a towel around His waist, and poured water into a basin.
Then He began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel He had around Him
. John 13:3-5

I’ve participated in a few reenactments of this gospel scene, and witnessed a few more. But I’ve never seen it done like Jesus did it. Instead, someone takes off their shoes, and then their socks, and then dangles their already-clean feet over the water basin.

However, Jesus and the disciples lived in a hot, sockless climate. I don’t think there were fragrant bars of soap, or soft towels, or callous-free feet. To wash anything, someone had to walk to the well and haul the water back to the house, a back-breaking task.

Elbow grease
Then Jesus got down on his knees. The disciples’ feet were not only dirty, but probably smelly too from stepping through garbage, animal muck, and sewage. Maybe they hadn’t had a chance to wash in a while either.

To get their feet clean, Jesus had to apply some elbow grease. Because when real dirt is involved, foot-washing involves a fair amount of time and effort. You can’t just do a quick dunk and dab. You have to scrub, hard.

That’s what I had to do with my dirty feet. Fortunately, I have a mitt from the local hammam, which is rough enough to scrub off dead skin–or stubborn dirt.

mitt from a hammam, or public steam bath

Eventually, after a lot of scrubbing and rubbing, my feet returned to their normal pale color once again.

The teacher kneeling before the student
After washing their feet, He put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.
And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.
I have given you an example to follow.
Do as I have done to you.
John 13:12-15

His disciples would have understood that Jesus was asking them to do something humbling and hard. It would take time and effort. To serve each other as followers of Jesus requires getting down on our knees, bent over dirty feet, scrubbing away. And we have to do it lovingly, which means slowly and patiently.

Washing with grace
Recently, I witnessed this kind of loving sacrifice as one follower of Jesus came alongside another. The second follower’s life was not pretty and clean, but dirty and messed up–just like dusty feet.

It wasn’t easy for the servant-follower to patiently care for the one who needed help. The servant had to humble herself, she had to take her time, she had to be gentle, but persistent. It was hard work, soul-wearying even. But the servant-follower continued to love faithfully.

It was a beautiful thing to watch a servant willing to ‘kneel’ before someone who hadn’t done anything to deserve such an honor, whose ‘feet’ were crusted with dirt after years of neglect.

I can think back on the people in my life who have ‘washed my feet’. There have been saints who have knelt before me, as it were, and helped carry my burdens. They have been patient with me, they have encouraged me, they have given me what I need even when it cost them.

What about you? Who are the servants who have cared for you in your unloveliness? Who have been the footwashers in your life?

And who might Jesus be asking you to kneel before so you can slowly, patiently, and gently wash them with His grace?

5 responses to Wash feet: apply elbow grease


    You know … you’re pretty good at this writing thing. You should consider writing a book!
    Great post … thoughtful and very insightful. When thinking it over .. I don’t do much foot washing. I am of the dunk and dab tribe.

    My wife of 36 years has to have hip surgery and I will be in the position of having to provide a lot of follow up care for her. My prayer is that I can honor her as much as she has put up with me for the last 36 years! It’s a great opportunity for me to serve someone dear to me.

    Well see how it all works out!

    Newdoors ….


    This made me think of something else. It made me think of sometimes being reluctant to get “clean” because I’m just going to get dirty again. We always get dirty again and we always need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and let others help us. It’s a humbling cycle.


    What a great insight–so profound. Thank you very sharing it!


    I love this photo, and foot-washing is something I’ve thought about a lot as a yoga student. The one time I actually have other people touch my feet has been in yoga class, where I’ve had several teachers that come over with fragrant oil to rub my feet or my temples while in final meditation or corpse pose. It’s always a challenge to accept–but my toenails are too long! I’m sweaty! You’re going to get foot juice on you!

    I had one teacher that lifted and swung my legs, back and forth, to allow my hip sockets to settle, and then laid my feet back on the floor. It required that same surrender from me I imagine Jesus’ disciples required, allowing my teacher to cleanse my feet.

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