Inspired by John 12:1-8; 13:1-17
Today we have yet another example of just how different the Gospel of John is from the other three, and why so many over the centuries just haven’t figured out what to do with it. The story I just read to you is usually read on Maundy Thursday. We are nowhere near that day so why are we reading it now? Well, today’s reading was from chapters twelve and thirteen, and the crucifixion doesn’t occur until chapter nineteen.
I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to read six chapters on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this year, so what we have is an extended Holy Week, beginning today with the Maundy Thursday story and ending in the actual Holy Week in mid-April. Now, for a liturgical nerd like myself, this really goes against my liturgical grain! Maundy Thursday is for Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday should stay on Good Friday, is what my little seminary fairy is screaming from my shoulder!
In fact, I seriously considered just not doing this the way it’s laid out for us and just doing my own thing. I mean, I’m the pastor, I can do that! But then a curious thing happened. I went on Facebook, and saw that a bunch of other pastors were feeling the way I was about this. And as I read their comments and gripes and rants, each sounding more and more like the Pharisees of old who were more concerned with the letter of the law than the spirit of the law, I thought to myself, “Ewww, I don’t want to be one of those! Those are exactly the guys that used to get on my nerves in seminary. I can’t become one of them! So, I grit my teeth and said, we are going to continue reading through this Gospel as it’s laid out, even if it doesn’t coincide with the liturgical calendar, and see what happens.
I mean, I’m always telling you all to step out of your comfort zone, right! Well, if I’m gonna talk the talk I better walk the walk! So here we are, on the second Sunday of Lent, reading the Maundy Thursday story. Geez, I can barely say that out loud without gagging. All the more reason to do this! This is good for me! And I hope for you too. Because what I’ve discovered so far has been pretty profound. Separating these readings from the usual holidays has been a meaningful exercise for me and again, I hope it will be for you too. Because if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t these stories have something to tell us every day? Not just on the one day of the year that we read them? I think so. So, let’s see what this one has to say to us, today, on the second Sunday of Lent. Whew, ok, we can do this!
So, I added a bit to the reading. We were only assigned to read from chapter thirteen but I added a bit from twelve because there is a very important connection and you may have already picked up on it. From chapter twelve, we read the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. Now, just imagine that scene in your mind’s eye. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and they host a dinner party for him. Seems like a reasonable way to say thank you.
So, there they are, in the middle of dinner, not an insignificant detail, when all of a sudden, Mary decides to put her fork down, grab a huge, expensive jar of essential oils, walks over to Jesus, kneels down, and begins to wash his feet with the oil and dry them with her very own hair. I imagine a sudden hush falls upon the invited guests, as all their eyes are fixed on what is happening, trying to make sense of it. If that looks to you like an awkward moment, I assure you that it was!
But aside from the awkwardness, this was a very intimate moment for Mary and Jesus. And by intimate I don’t mean sexual of course, but intimate in every other way for sure. They were close before but after an encounter like this, they were most certainly connected in a way they hadn’t been before. Which is one of the beautiful things that happens when one person serves another. Think of it this way. The relationship between parent and child is one of the closest relationships that there is during our time on earth. Why? Because in spite of the parent being the elder, being the one in control, being the authority figure, in spite of all that, the parent begins the relationship with their child by serving them.
In their most vulnerable state, the parent serves the child—cleans them up after bathroom accidents, scoops up their vomit from the floor, assists them when they can’t walk on their own—now that I say this out loud it sounds like I’m talking about a drunk person but you get what I’m trying to say here. It is in servanthood to the child that a parent establishes a bond that is like no other.
And for those of you who have experienced the reverse, when the child serves the parent in old age, when they return to a most vulnerable stage, you know that the relationship takes on an even stronger bond, when you thought it couldn’t get any stronger. All due to one person choosing to serve another. This is the bond that happens with Mary and Jesus, and just to make sure they don’t explain this away, just to make sure they don’t say something like, “Oh, there goes Mary being Mary again!” or “Well, she’s just a woman, what does she know.”
Which, in their misogynistic society, was very possible. So, just to make sure that they don’t lose this lesson that Mary teaches them, Jesus decides to follow Mary’s lead, and teach it again, at another dinner party, their last dinner together as a group, just before their planned third and final Passover together. Again, picture this scene in your mind’s eye if you can. They had just arrived in Jerusalem, just had a big reception with palm branches and all. And Jesus decides to have a more intimate moment with his closest followers, over a meal, before all the chaos of the Passover festival begins. And so, there they are, eating dinner, being their usual jovial selves. Maybe laughing and carrying on like they normally would. But Jesus is a bit more subdued this evening. Maybe they noticed, maybe they didn’t. But there is a more somber tone to Jesus tonight.
Because Jesus knows that he is in the midst of the lasts. The last meal with them. The last teachings. The last laughs with them. The last hugs. He knows these are the lasts. And so, in the middle of the meal, once again not an insignificant detail, Jesus puts his fork down, gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and ties a towel around his waist. By this time that sudden hush descends upon them, everyone stops chewing, food still in their mouths as they stare at Jesus trying to figure out what is happening. Maybe some of them were thinking, for crying out loud can’t we have one meal without someone doing something weird! Jesus feels their stares but continues. In just his underwear and a towel around his waist, he grabs a big basin, fills it with water, and begins to wash their feet—following Mary’s lead who had just washed his days before.
Peter protests, bless his heart. And who could blame him! This was a ridiculous scene! This was even more ridiculous than Mary washing Jesus’ feet! But at least then they could write it off as just Mary being Mary again. How could they write this off? How could they make sense of this? Jesus simply responds with, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.” And like a lightbulb going on above his head, something just clicks within Peter and he gets it! He gets it!
That same bond that Jesus and Mary now had, he was offering to Peter and the rest of them. A bond in serving one another, in all their vulnerabilities. A bond in servanthood. Our reading ends with Jesus saying, “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
And I say that sarcastically because it was anything but pleasurable. It was quite frustrating in fact. I sat next to Pastor Alex from Sierra Foothills and had to lean over and tell him to take deep breaths, as we sat there and had to hear so many comments about “those people” that were dehumanizing, and criminal labeling. But more than that, I heard many conditions being laid down. Conditions that pertained to drug use, behavior, previous residence, mental health, or their willingness to accept assistance or not. And this story of the washing of feet compels us to ask, are there any acceptable conditions before providing basic human amenities like food, water, shelter, safety, and love?
I’ll make it easy for you, the answer is no, not if you’re really listening to this story. The only way our housing “problem” is going to be solved is if we can stop seeing it as a problem, and begin to see it as a responsibility—a responsibility to serve. And more than that, an opportunity—an opportunity to bond with our community in servanthood. But let me warn you, it’s a powerful bond, and you won’t walk away the same people. And like any other relationship, it ain’t gonna be easy, and will be filled with lots of awkward and uncomfortable moments. Like washing someone’s feet while everyone’s trying to eat dinner. But this is our calling, on Maundy Thursday, and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.