It was just before the Passover meal — the most sacred feast on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the night the Hebrews made their hurried escape from Egypt.
It was not a meal to be lingered over.
Meat roasted quickly over the fire, not braised in liquid till falling off the bone.
Bread made without yeast — no time to allow dough to rise.
The meal was eaten with bags packed and ready to go:
Cloak tucked into your belt.
Sandals on your feet.
Staff in hand.
“Eat it in haste,” God had said. Because things are moving fast.
Much like that first Passover night, Jesus knew his time was running out. “The hour had come,” John would later recall.
The meal was already in progress when Jesus abruptly interrupted it.
He got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he got down on his hands and knees and crawled from one disciple to the next, washing their feet.
Hours before he would die, just minutes before Judas would slip out to betray him — in the middle of a meal that was supposed to be eaten like there was no tomorrow — Jesus stopped everything to perform one of the most mundane tasks of hospitality.
Foot-washing was servant’s work.
In those days, when a guest arrived at your house, it was common courtesy to volunteer your servant to wash their feet — or, in the event you had no servant, to invite your guests to wash their own feet.
With the minutes ticking down — with “the hour” at hand — Jesus took the role of a servant.
And it wasn’t even his house.
It would have been strange enough for the owner of a house to personally wash his guest’s feet. Stranger still for another guest — who also happened to be king — to do the honors.
It would be like the new pope washing the feet of an AIDS patient.
“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
The question is, an example of what?
Peter famously objected to this bizarre display, until Jesus explained, “If you don’t let me do this, you can’t have any part of me.”
Ever the zealot, Peter swung quickly to the other extreme, begging Jesus to wash the rest of him as well.
“You’re already clean, Peter,” Jesus replied.
Sensing that some explanation was required, Jesus turned to the other disciples:
You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
Jesus’ act of foot-washing was no mere gesture of hospitality. It was an abhorrent act of self-humiliation. It was an abdication of power by which the rightful Lord traded his kingship for servitude.
This was a foreshadowing of what was going to happen the following day.
This is what being “the way, the truth, and the life” — something Jesus talked about just moments later — was all about.
And this is the life to which Jesus called his disciples. This is the example he called them to follow. To set aside any notions of grandeur or glory. To hell with the urgency of the moment or whatever cause we think matters more than people.
To lay down our arms, our pride, our agendas and become the servant of all.