Many years ago I had a part time job helping a quadriplegic man get up in the morning and get ready for work. Every day I would get him out of bed, into the shower, clothe him, feed him breakfast and see him off to work. One morning I arrived to find him in bed covered in filth. Somehow the meds that kept his bowels regulated hadn’t worked and he had lain in his own waste for hours waiting for me to arrive. He was simply in an awful state. I felt terrible for him. My heart was immediately burning to relieve him. I really cared about him and I couldn’t move quickly enough to clean him up.
I suspect anyone of you would feel the same way about a spouse, child, or someone else you care about in distress. But what has stuck with me for the years since are his words and attitude and towards me. Understandably, he felt ashamed and humiliated. As badly as he needed my help, it was as agonizing for him to allow me to clean him as it was for him to tolerate the filth. He just couldn’t stop apologizing and telling me how badly he felt for me. He didn’t want me to see him in this state and he certainly didn’t want me to have to expose myself to the foulness of it all. And so I felt even worse for him. I didn’t want to just cleanse his body; I wanted to wash away the shame. I didn’t really know what to say. I just said what was on my heart: I told him that I cared for him. I told him that I wanted to do it and that I wasn’t just doing it because it was my job. I think he appreciated that but then we reverted to what any two normal men would do: we finished the job talking about anything other than what was happening in front of us and we never spoke of it again. I guess you could call it a partial victory over shame.
But my friend’s response got me thinking about the whole idea of shame and cleansing, and along those lines I’ve found myself thinking recently about Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was an intense time packed with “last words” in a sense. Curiously, while the other gospel writers focus on the institution of the Lord’s Supper, John shows us another ritual picture of Jesus’ redeeming work—the washing of his disciples’ feet. At the evening meal Jesus takes off his outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin and begins. When he gets to Peter he is met with a strong response:
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet” (Jn.13:8).
Startling, but understandable. I don’t claim to know what was going on in Peter’s mind but I think it’s a reasonable guess that it was some combination of pride and shame. Peter didn’t seem to mind Jesus washing the other disciples’ feet. Maybe it wasn’t hard for Peter to see that they needed it. Perhaps Peter was even moved to see that Jesus was willing to do it. But having Jesus kneel before him as a servant after knowing him as Lord and master was something quite different—something intolerable. I’m sure Peter, like most of us, would rather figure out some way of cleaning himself. At least part of us would find prideful satisfaction in being able to take care of our own mess. But another sizeable part would like to avoid having another, especially Jesus, see our filth. And the thought of Jesus having to touch it . . . well, that makes us just want to say no.
Jesus’ response is as direct and startling as Peter’s. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (Jn.13:8). Well, that clinches it, doesn’t it? Jesus insists on putting an end to both our pride and our shame. There is no other way to relate to him. We can’t simply see ourselves as needing a little guidance and Jesus as our helpful guide. We can’t see ourselves as essentially “do-it-yourselfers” who partner with Jesus to help the less fortunate. No. We must acknowledge just how fouled we have become. We trod through a fallen world. We tramp through the mess of our own sin and we’ve been smeared by the sinful deeds of others. We are rebellious. We are wounded. We are proud. We are ashamed. We need all of it washed away. Jesus insists that we accept him as God who kneels before us in love and humility to cleanse, forgive, and restore us.
There’s a lot more to this passage but for today I’m thinking about this: whether it’s shame or pride, part of me doesn’t want Jesus to cleanse me. But there’s no other way. Jesus won’t give me any wiggle room. I can’t be a part of him unless I let him do the cleansing. I have to let him see and touch my sin and my shame. But there’s part of me, too, relieved that I can quit trying to do it on my own.