Sounds of the Passion - Sloshing Water
John 13:1-15 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. 2 The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" 7 Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." 8 "No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." 9 "Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!" 10 Jesus answered, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you." 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. 12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. 13 "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
The pouring of water into a bowl was a common sound in the days before running water. Each bedroom in the house had a pitcher and basin to wash in before beginning the new day. Mark Twain tells us that Tom Sawyer’s least favorite sound in the world was the sound of water being poured into a basin, because that meant he had to be clean — and he hated being clean. It was easier and a lot more fun just to be dirty.
To understand the importance of sloshing water, we need to remember life and customs in Jesus’ day. First, anything dealing with the feet was considered dirty and disgusting. Cleaning feet was fit only for the lowest of slaves. In fact, Jewish masters couldn’t force Jewish slaves to clean their feet. Only Gentile slaves could be required to do such a thing. So when John the Baptist said he wasn’t fit to untie Jesus’ sandals, that showed just how deeply he was abasing himself. You couldn’t get any lower than that in the eyes of a Jew.
Second, the Passover was the most formal and festive meal of the year for Jews. No other celebration — not even a wedding — held the same significance that the Passover did. Everyone would wear his or her finest clothing, they would wash and look their best, they would eat Roman style while reclining on couches. There was only one problem. You got all cleaned up, but then you had to walk on dirty and dusty roads to where the dinner was being held. Your feet would be filthy from the sand and dust. It was the responsibility of the host to have a basin of water near the door so that you could wash your feet as you entered.
But there was no water at this dinner. It wasn’t that the disciples wouldn’t have liked the water for their feet — they would have enjoyed it immensely — but none of them was going to go get it. Each of them felt sick at the thought. “Carry water? For feet? Act like a common Gentile slave? Not me! Let one of the other guys go carry water first. I’m not about to do it.”
Imagine what was happening at the table that night. Jesus is talking about betrayal. The disciples are arguing. And what is the topic of their argument? Not “Who loves Jesus the most?” but “Who is the most important person at the table?” They had argued this question time and time again, even though Jesus kept telling them that true greatness lies in service to God and other people. The lesson just didn’t sink in. And now — once again — they were arguing over who was the most important.
Suddenly, in the midst of their arguing voices, there came a sound — a quiet, gurgling sound from the back of the room. They heard the sound of pouring water. They turned around and there was Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, His cloak off, a towel around His waist, filling a bowl with water.
They knew what was about to happen, and none of them wanted anything to do with it. Jesus went over to Matthew, to John, to Philip. He knelt down in front of each man and gently removed the disciple’s sandals. Jesus soaked Andrew’s tired feet in the bowl; He poured fresh water over Bartholomew’s to remove the dust and dirt; and then He wiped them off with His towel. He knelt before James and Simon and the rest, repeating the lowly ritual each time. We don’t hear Jesus say a word, nor do we hear any comment of the disciples. The only sound in the room is the sound of sloshing water — until Jesus reaches Peter.
Peter was filled with shame as he watched Jesus wash the disciples’ feet. O.K., they might sit there stone-faced while Jesus embarrassed Himself, but Peter wasn’t about to let that happen. “Lord,” he said, “do you wash my feet?” “You don’t understand what I’m doing now,” replied Jesus, “but later you will understand.”
Typical Peter — well-meaning but self-determined. His protest seemed modest, seemed to honor Christ, not wishing his Lord to perform such a menial service for him. But, in fact, this was Peter’s vanity speaking. Peter wasn’t willing to admit that Jesus had to do everything for him. Peter wanted to believe that he could do something for Jesus, even if it was nothing more than spare Jesus humiliation. “No, Lord,” he said, pulling back, “you will never wash my feet!” Jesus simply holds out his hands. “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
Then Peter relented — with typical overstatement. “Then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!” That was Peter. He didn’t want things done halfway; he wanted it all. Wash and be clean — it was as simple as that. If Jesus washed Peter, he would be clean, for then his heart and his life would be clean. He would follow Jesus; he would love his Lord because he’d see, in this and every act of Christ’s service, that Jesus loved him. Now he accepted the washing and was made clean.
Do you listen when the water is poured into the baptismal font? The sound of the water sloshing into the font is the sound of the Lord coming to wash His disciples again. Only this time He doesn’t come to wash our feet. He comes to wash what He really cleansed for the disciples that night. He comes to wash our hearts and our lives. Our Lord comes to us, in servant’s clothes, and He washes us in the water of our Baptism. “If I wash you, you will be clean,” He says. So He washes us with the pure, cleansing water of Baptism. For in that water, we are made holy.
The water of Baptism is more than simply water. Baptism is the Word of God connected to water. The water itself does not save us; the Word of God in and with the water saves us. And what is that Word? “If I wash you, you will be clean.” Jesus washes us in Baptism; He makes us clean.
Clean from what? Clean from the sin and death of the world that sticks to us. In one Peanuts comic strip, Pig-Pen has just taken a bath. He dresses up in clean clothes and begins walking to school. As he goes down the block, he gets dirtier and dirtier. Before he’s gone more than 100 steps, he’s just as dirty as he was before he took the bath. “You are the only person I know who can get dirty just walking on the sidewalk,” says Charlie Brown. We’re the same way. Except that our dirt comes from the inside. Because of the sin within us and in our world, we get dirty and contaminated with sin just walking down the street. But in Baptism, our Lord comes and washes away our sin. He washes away sin’s dirt and dresses us with His robes of righteousness.
Baptism does all these things because it connects us to the death of Jesus. Truly, in His death Jesus shows us the “full extent of his love.” At the cross Jesus gave His life in our place. He won for us forgiveness of sins and pours out the power of His victory. Jesus’ blood was poured out on the cross. In Baptism His blood is poured out on us, and we are washed in that blood.
Our Baptism also calls us to service. After He washed His disciples’ feet, Jesus told them that they were to wash each other’s feet, just as He did. “A new command I give you,” He told them. “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (–35). We are called to serve each other with the same humble, caring love that Jesus shared with His disciples. And from where does that love come? It comes from Jesus Himself.
Immediately after Jesus poured out His love in washing the disciples’ feet, He then fed them with His body and blood as He instituted the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper would strengthen these disciples for what lay ahead for them in Jesus’ Passion. The Lord’s Supper does the same for us. It strengthens faith in those who struggle against sin, death, and the devil – which would be every one of us. It also enflames our love for each other – divine love that Christ has poured into this sacramental meal.
Baptism is pure Gospel that is poured over our heads. The Lord’s Supper is pure Gospel that we can taste and savor. After we have received these sacraments, we give ourselves in service to each other as Christ gave Himself up to sin, death, and hell.The sound of water sloshing into a basin is the sound of Jesus coming as a servant to His people. The sound of breaking bread and pouring wine is also the sound of Jesus coming as a servant to His people. He comes this night to serve us through the forgiveness of sins received in Holy Baptism, renewed once again in the pronouncement of absolution. He comes this dark evening to serve us in the giving of His body and blood in this most solemn and sacred meal. He comes this dark and doleful night through the Good News that He has come to serve us by saving us. Jesus comes tonight to serve us, to wash us, to cleanse us, to feed us – so that we might be His own. Amen.