Washing before eating: what footwashing taught our congregation about humility

Spending their day pinched into street shoes or treading dusty ground with only a flap of leather to protect them, feet fulfill an unflattering, though necessary, function. Feet are not glamorous; they are the workhorses of the human body. In fact, to some of us, they are an embarrassment when not housed in footwear. Ceremony that exposes our bony, chubby, knobby, ugly smelly, or crooked feet is to be avoided. It is a quaintism, we think, that we can do without.

But Jesus could not. He seemed unwilling to take leave of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion without washing their feet. "Unless I wash you, you have nopartwithme" (John 13:8b). More than offering a gesture of good will, Jesus was accomplishing the divine task of humbling himself to become obedient unto death, even death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). It was necessary for him to take on the role of a servant. He emptied himself of divine privilege so that, in becoming human, he might bear the sin of humanity in all its ugliness and crookedness. In so doing, Jesus provided an example of what Paul encouraged: "Your [self-giving] attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus..." (Phil 2:5). That is, have the same attitude of self-sacrifice as Christ, who loved to the extent of offering up his life.

So Jesus washed the disciples' feet. Not head or hands, as Peter suggested, but feet that only a slave was expected to wash. In a sense the disciples didn't need to be cleansed from sin, for they were already clean by virtue of their baptism into the deathjesus would die. But disciples of Christ who have already been washed must learn to be as humble as Christ, who willingly acted as a servant by stooping to pour cooling water, scour stubborn dirt, and wrap with a soothing towel. We must learn to respond to the command of Jesus who in effect said, "As I have served you unselfishly, go and do the same to one another."

The footwashing portion of our Maundy Thursday service (on pp. 32-33) was our church's attempt to portray the two-sided quality of servanthood to which Christ called us: serving and being served. That ceremony brought us to the night of Jesus' memorable instruction to his disciples—and to us, who now take on the earthly mission of Jesus.

Including children in this service seemed natural, and opened the way for adults to abandon artificial constraints that might inhibit their response of childlike sincerity and joy. One woman in our congregation testified, 'At the beginning of the service, I didn't feel the need to participate. But I was so moved by the sincere joy with which the children responded to Jesus, that I was compelled to come forward with similar eagerness to humble myself before God and my fellow laborers in Christ."


The word maundy (Old French, mande) is derived from the Latin term mandatwn novum, the "new commandment" of love from John 13:34. The word is associated with the foot-washing, when Jesus directed his disciples to serve one another in obedience to the command of love.

Called to Discipleship

Prelude: "Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed"

"Passion Chorale"
[U.S. Bach]

Opening Hymn: "O Perfect Life of hove"
[PsH 380]

Jesus Washes the Disciples' Feet: from John 13
(A Reenactmentjbr Children)
[Children wishing to have their feet washed should come forward with shoes removed . 1]

Time of Wondering 2

This is the season of Lent, the time we get ready to celebrate the mystery of Easter.

We remember how once every year the people of God went up to Jerusalem, the Holy City of God, to celebrate the feast of Passover, to remember how God brought them through the water to freedom.

As Jesus traveled to Jerusalem, crowds of people came to see him. They wanted to hear him teach. And they wanted to be close to him because they knew he would not turn anyone away—not even if they were little children, or poor, or sick, or scared, or if they were someone no one else would talk to. And they came because they hoped he would be their King.

But this year, Jesus' friends had not wanted to go to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. They were afraid. They said, "Jesus, don't go! People in Jerusalem want to kill you." Then the day of Passover came and Jesus' friends gathered in an upper room to celebrate the feast.

[Taken from Young Children and Worship (Sonja Siewart and Jerome Berryman), pp. 178, 180, 186,189,190. The following questions were written by worship leader Susan Langland.]

  • I wonder how Jesus' friends felt about Passover time...
    [The disciples enter and are seated at the table.]
  • I wonder if they enjoyed getting together for a feast—or if perhaps some were not so interested because the words for the feast were the same every year...
  • I wonder if they were still afraid...

  • I wonder if they were remembering all the waving palms and people cheering...

  • I wonder if they were hoping Jesus would tell them that very night how he was going to become the king of Israel ...

  • I wonder if any of them were hoping Jesus would make them an important king's helper...

Let's quietly find a place in the upper room and join the disciples at the Passover Feast.

Script from John 13:1-17 (Good News Bible) 4
[Children have joined Jesus and the disciples at the table. While the narrator reads, the characters go through the activities described. ©5]

Narrator: It was now the day before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. He had always loved those in the world who were his own, and he loved them to the very end.

Jesus and his disciples were at supper. The Devil had already put into the heart of Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, the thought of betraying Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had given him complete power; he knew that he had come from God and was going to God. So he rose from the table, took off his outer garment, and tied a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash his disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.

[Pause while Jesus washes the feet of the disciples—not the children at this time. Jesus approaches Peter last]

Narrator: Then he came to Simon Peter.

Peter: Are you going to wash my feet, Lord?

Jesus: You do not understand now what I am doing, but you will understand later.

Peter: No, never at any time will you wash my feet!

Jesus: If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple.

Peter: Then, Lord, do not wash only my feet. Wash my hands and head, too.

Jesus: Anyone who has had a bath is completely clean and does not have to wash. All of you are clean—all except one.

Narrator: Jesus knew who was going to betray him, that is why he said, 'All of you, except one, are clean."
[Jesus sets the basin and towel aside and puts on his cloak.]

Jesus: Do you understand what I have just done to you? You call me "Teacher" and "Lord," and it is right that you do so, because that is what I am. I, your Teacher and Lord, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another's feet. I have set an example for you, so that you can do what I have done for you.

An Invitation for All: Philippians 2:1-8

In coming forward to have our feet washed, we are acknowledging a life of humble service—to serve and be served—in which we follow the example of Christ.

[The disciples pick up the basins and towels and place them by the seats where other worshipers will be coming forward. They will wash the feet of the first two persons to come forward after the invitation from Philippians 2:1-8. The Children and Worship leader may speak quietly with the children if they "wonder" about what they see happening, or the children may be assisted back to their seats.]

Offertory: "Caswell"

"When Jesus Wept"

Called to Hear and Respond to God's Word

Scripture: John 13:12-20

Meditation: After Footzvashing, What?


Song: "Lift Up Your Hearts Unto the Lord"
[PsH 309]

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.

Prayer of Confession:
Let us offer our hearts in humble penitence and prayer:

Loving Father, our sin has brought you sorrow. It has harmed those who share our life, it has offended our neighbors, it has been hurtful to us. Our pride and our pain weigh heavily upon us. Yet your dear Son bears our grief and carries our sorrow. Through him we ask for mercy. Lord, hear our prayer and forgive our sins.

Silent Prayer

Solo: "Alas and Did My Savior Bleed"

We thank you, Father, for sending your Son to deliver us from the way of sin and death by the obedience of his life, by his suffering upon the cross, and by his resurrection from the dead. Be pleased to receive our gratitude.


Called to Share in Christ's Suffering

The Lord's Supper


Doxology: "Lift High the Cross"
[PsH 373,PH 371,TH 263]

Postlude: "Christ Jesus Lay in Deaths Strong Bands



1.This instruction was meant to do two things:

  • Facilitate the "disciples'" task by letting them know which children wanted to participate. (We saw children's reluctance to have their feet washed not as a "Peter" response, but with the understanding that children might be shy about the unknown of coming forward.) Parents were to ask their children before they came forward if each child wanted his or her feet washed.
  • Include even those children who had chosen not to have their feet washed in the drama.

The children became so involved in the drama that even those who came forward with shoes on eagerly peeled them off to have their feet washed by the disciples.

2. A Children and Worship leader first gathered the children for a time of wondering before the drama began. At a prearranged time, the disciples walked forward in view of the children to begin the drama. The children again were asked to wonder what might be taking place. The leader led the children to the table to sit with Jesus and the disciples, and then prepared the children for the time when each of them—one at a time—went forward to sit at the table with two disciples and Jesus. All of this happened with reverential awe on the part of children and adults.

Certainly, services having more than the ten children who gathered at this service will need to plan how a larger number of children could be included.

3. Some parents had been requested to sit with the children during the time of wondering and the reenact-ment. This helped the worship leader, and gave the adults an opportunity to become involved in the story.

4. This reenactment was staged very simply. The following props were used: a low table (at a height that necessitated kneeling) covered with a cloth; a pitcher and plate with bread; another pitcher of water and foot basins (one set for every pair of disciples); towels; characters in simple costumes; and hghting that focused on the drama.

5. We were prepared to sing (using an overhead projector) "Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love" and "The Servant Song" while the drama was going on. We eventually did sing, but the pianist—who was also taken up with the drama—held off the singing for a meaningf ul time of observation and meditation until it seemed appropriate to move from quiet awe into singing.

6. Again, footwashing was not mandatory. After a further explanation of the purpose of the footwashing, a time of silent meditation allowed worshipers to contemplate their need to come forward. About a sixth of the worshipers came forward to sit in the front pews. The worship leader washed the feet of the first participant, who in turned washed the feet of his or her nearest neighbor.

Ruth Hofman is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church.


Reformed Worship 30 © December 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.