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Lent 3B 2012

It begins with a Towel.
(John 13:1-15)

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Last week we grumbled that the Gospeller Mark crashed our Lenten party before it had barely begun
with his long-shadowed cross.
Now it’s John who interrupts our Lenten stride this time with this incident from the night before
all hell breaks loose, the night of Jesus’ arrest.
But to be fair to John, it’s entirely my fault,
because the text we have today is my choice,
rather than the lectionary reading,
and I’ve chosen it primarily for its capacity to gift
not only the Board,
but all of us with its insight into what it means
to take on leadership, Jesus style.
(It doesn’t hurt that it belongs in Lent,
helping us to pay attention to the last weeks of Jesus’ life.)
Where Mark’s Jesus is rushing everywhere,
doing everything “immediately,”
John’s Jesus is more measured, and enigmatic.
John keeps giving us psychic insights into
the wisdom, the foreknowledge, the holiness of this man
that leave him just beyond our reach.
Not a word passes his lips that isn’t dripping with deep meaning.
So much so that we feel we have to sharpen our wits
just to watch and listen,
and even then we’re not sure we totally get it.
At first John doesn’t seem to be helping himself
with that longwinded set of subordinate clauses
that seem to be saying little and going nowhere….
“Jesus, knowing that God the Father
had given all things into his hands,
and that he had come from God,
and was going to God,
got up from the table, took off his tunic, his mantle,
tied a towel around his waist……….and….”
And?.. The point of all that would be?
It took me a few tries and a dose of uncharacteristic patience
for it to dawn on me that John has flicked on
the slow motion switch and the zoom lens.
Like the video replay of the winning goal,
slowing the action down so you can see all the players,
where they are, whose stick is on the puck,
whose foot is in the way,
the rising crowd behind the glass, mouths open,
urging the puck towards the net….anticipation building….
John is slowing us down….. calling us to pay attention,
gradually narrowing the focus until we, at last,
turn our eyes upon Jesus.i

Walk to table

The scene is a room all decked out for festival – for Passover.
Lamb is roasting nearby, the bitter herbs, the egg,
the unleavened bread – the matzoh, the wine,
are all on the table, ready ,
as is the Passover mark upon the door.

back to lectern

And by that door,
unnoticed, a towel, a pitcher with water, and a basin.ii

Such vessels sat by the doorways of most ancient
Middle Eastern homes,
placed there to wash the dust from the feet of all who entered.
The unremarkable tools of hospitality, of care,
of servanthood.
Usually a servant
would be tasked to watch for newcomers,
ready to place the towel around their waist,
pour water from the pitcher into the basin,
kneel on the ground
and wash the feet of all the guests who would enter.
A servant.
All those of you who are as addicted as I am to Downton Abbey,
and other British period TV drama will know
that the valet who took the gloves, umbrellas, hats and coats of distinguished guests were rarely noticed, let alone thanked, for their trouble, for the sloppy wetness or dusty grime they had to deal with, unbidden and unseen.)
So, we watch Jesus, now, in that Passover room,
filled with the noise and bustle of….
well, like a church 5 minutes before the start
of the service,
chatter, hugs, greetings, smiles, coats and hospitable mayhem.
He is silent among them, watching all these friends,
disciples who call him ‘Rabbi’, teacher.
Jesus, the one who has healed the sick, the lame,
the blind with spittle and mud,
who raised Jairus’ daughter with an outstretched hand,
who spins words like richly coloured (point to window) blue and purple and gold silk to describe the love of God.

(move to pitcher, point)

He, he moves quietly to the door,
he removes his mantle,
and takes the towel, and wraps it around his waist,
and he hefts the pitcher, stoneware and water heavy,
and pours the water, bright and clean,
like baptismal water,
into a basin.
He moves to the centre of the room,
places the basin on the floor between their feet,
and bids them sit, and then he takes a foot,
a dusty sandalled foot,
calloused perhaps or twisted with arthritis in the toe joints,
and he washes it,
holding the foot as if it is the most precious of all of God’s creations.
What did John say again….?
“And Jesus, knowing that God had given all things into his hands,”
takes the feet of his disciples in his hands.
Servant hands, wrapped with a towel,
pouring water from a pitcher into a basin.
He has our attention.
Perhaps he has our emotions in his grasp
as he does Simon Peter’s.
“Not me, Lord, don’t wash my feet! I’m not worthy!!!
Perhaps not, but that’s not the point is it?
If we stayed with the scene unfolding in that room that night,
we’d hear Jesus say to anyone still with him
(and please God that includes us),
“All these things I’ve done, you will do too.
Like me. In my name.” (John 14:12)
You’ll stand in a room, a gathering of friends or strangers,
you’ll sit on the bench in the Pointe Claire Plaza,
or at the bank or the pool,
you’ll drop off pencils and notebooks for Dos Palais in Haiti,
or bags pasta for St Columba House,
or you’ll find yourself in the kitchen making meals for Seniors,
washing dishes at F4,
opening pathways for healing here and wherever.
You’ll put down the phone after hearing one of your friends
has to face surgery, or illness, or death,
and you’ll catch a glimpse in your peripheral vision
of that doorway.
And the replay will slow down enough
for you to notice there,
that towel, and a pitcher, and a basin.
And your feet will move,
your heart will stir,
your hands will reach out,
and you’ll take off your mantle
your dignity, your fear,
your sense of inadequacy,
even your sense of entitlement,
and you’ll wrap that towel around your waist,
you’ll make that soup, you’ll visit your sick friend,
you’ll pray that prayer, you’ll take on leadership,
you’ll find that God-given Spirit-fed purpose,
and you’ll lift that pitcher of blessing and pour its living water
into your basin
and you will wash all those feet like he did, in Jesus’ name.
I know you will, because the covenants we make today
and remake each year
are not just with one another but with God.
God keeps covenant too.
Jesus Christ, the one who walked among us,
the one who washes our feet,
who goes to death and beyond, with us and for us,
is God’s covenant made visible, made human,
of healing wholeness with us, for us, through us,
and with the world.
God has amazing things for us to do together,
feeding spirits, fulfilling purpose
and making welcome;
It’s called ministry; serving the world’s
deepest needs with our greatest passions
in the name of God in Jesus.iii
And it will involve a towel, a water pitcher, and a basin
more often that you can imagine,
but that’s fine with us, right?


© Elisabeth R. Jones March 2012

i One Commentator writes “ John devoted one third of his book to the last 24 hour period Jesus spent on earth…. nothing like this exists elsewhere in the Bible. In their slow-motion, realistic detail, they provide an intimate memoir of Jesus’ most anquished evening….[focusing] on a whirlpool of emotional currents.” (Philip Yancey, Tim Stafford, New Revised Standard Version: Student edition. Zondervan, 1996, p.1113.)

ii Dr. Frank A. Thomas, preached a sermon at UTC College in 2005 called “A Basin, a Water Pitcher and a Towel” – his “favourite” sermon, preached in numerous place since (cf. e.g. ). I have remembered the cadences of his sermon, and it no doubt influences the cadences and content of portions of this sermon. When news is good, it is worth sharing, and I acknowledge my debt to his inspiration.

iiiFrederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC –quoted in my sermon for Epiphany 4B “Call Forward or Call Waiting” – see the website.

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