Imagine that you’re a server in a restaurant. You look at one of your assigned tables, you see that someone has been seated, and you shudder. It’s the person or the group that you least want to serve.
You recoil at having to be kind and serve them with a smile. You’re tempted to try to beg off serving their table.
Who would that be for you? Who’s at the top of your do-not-serve list?
Maybe it’s someone who tests your patience with their abrasive personality. Or maybe it’s a person who knows how to push your buttons. Maybe it’s someone who talks about you behind your back, or someone who blames everything on you.
Some of us might not feel so comfortable about serving the young person with dyed hair and tattooed arms. Or the older person who is hard of hearing. Or the couple with the cranky kids. Or the poor person in dirty and tattered clothes.
Maybe it’s someone wearing a button supporting a cause or candidate other than your own. Or maybe it’s a person wearing the garb of a different religion or culture that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s someone from a different race or sexual orientation and you have preconceived ideas.
Or, maybe it’s just someone who is known as a poor tipper and won’t reward your service.
None of that matters. You’re a server, and it’s your job to serve them kindly and respectfully.
Aren’t we all meant to be servers?
That’s one of the lessons a Jewish rabbi demonstrated 2,000 years ago at his final meal with his closest friends. According to various accounts, he did two impressionable things. The most-remembered part is how he told his friends that he would be with them whenever they shared bread and wine together, continuing his passion for enacting God’s love through meals open to everyone.
First, though, he did something eye-opening, according to one of the accounts. The Gospel of John mentions nothing of bread and wine, but makes foot washing the focus of their final meal together.
And it wasn’t a popular gesture, then or now.
Back in the day, washing dirty feet was as ordinary a gesture as washing hands today. People washed their own feet most of the time. When someone had a slave or servant, they would order them to wash the feet of prominent guests as a courtesy.
The servant was the lowliest person in the room. They didn’t decide whose feet they would clean. Even if they detested the person, they had to wash their feet respectfully.
And that’s what makes the gesture so radical. Jesus’ final message — the thing he wants his followers to remember most —is the act of grabbing the towel and water and serving everyone, whether you want to or not.
As you would expect, there were strong objections to this difficult teaching. Peter, the leader of the group, says: No way!
Jesus tells him he doesn’t have a choice: If you’re going to be a follower, you must serve everyone this way.
Jesus’ final example is consistent with his life. He offered healing and reconciliation freely to everyone, regularly dined with those considered to be the worst of people, and repeatedly erased the lines people draw between themselves and others.
Many people have objected to his radical inclusion and his unqualified love — then and now.
Yes, it’s very challenging when he gets all Jesus-y and insists that we need to love everyone, including our enemies, and serve everyone, especially those whom we can’t stand, and those most in need of our help.
Let’s be honest: We resist. We make excuses. Some self-described “Christians” even create their do-not-serve lists, avoiding those whom they consider unworthy of their service.
Of course, if Jesus had lived by that standard, he wouldn’t have washed any feet that night — certainly not those of the betrayer or the denier or the rest of his friends who were about to abandon him when he needed them most.
In God’s kingdom, everyone serves and everyone is served equally, no exceptions. Even the betrayer. Even the denier. Even the abandoner. Even the person who lives differently and believes differently. Even the person we simply can’t stand. Even the ones we consider unworthy.
Even you and me.
We’re to be servants at heart, summoned to pour God’s love on everyone. The water and the towel are waiting for us.