By Shelly Esser
The phone rang. It was a close friend who also happened to be a single mom. She was wondering if I could watch her little girl for the day. My initial response was no. My girls were starting a new school, I had to catch up on “ministry,” and we had after-school plans. Surely, I couldn’t fit in an all day babysitting commitment on top of that. I apologetically told her no, I couldn’t do it that day.
Immediately the whisper came, “Pick up your towel.”
“But, Lord,” I reasoned, “You know what my day is looking like and all I have to do.”
Again: “Pick up your towel.”
I knew I had to call Nancy back and tell her that, yes, I would be happy and available to watch her toddler all day. After all, isn’t that what servanthood is all about? We are never too important, nor is our day too hectic, to do the menial task. Real servanthood requires us to serve others, to be at the disposal of others and to do so quickly, willingly, and generously so that they might benefit and grow. It’s an abandonment of our own self-interests; it calls for a complete giving of whatever and whenever, without reservation, recognition, restriction, or reluctance. That surely didn’t exemplify my attitude at that moment!
The more I think about serving others, the more I am reminded of the visual Jesus left in John 13 of washing His disciple’s feet. Have you ever washed someone’s feet? This past summer, washing my daughters’ feet after a day of carefree, barefooted play became a nightly ritual at our house. I had never washed my older kids’ feet before. What I discovered as we gathered around the basin, with the soap and towel in hand, was that my children’s dirty, dusty feet weren’t even remotely attractive. In fact, their feet were quite ugly and handling them was, indeed, very humbling. Touching my girls’ toes and washing off the grime was not the most pleasant of experiences. But I did it because I love them -- and because I didn’t want them going to bed with those dirty feet!
While gently washing off the day’s remnants of play, I was sobered at the realization that this is the model Jesus had set for us in our relationship with others. In Jesus’ day, to wash the feet of others was a slave’s job. Because the roads of Palestine were dusty and dirty and the people wore open-faced sandals, it became necessary for servants to wash guests’ feet as they entered the house. So for Jesus to take up a towel, kneel down and wash His disciples’ feet was quite a shock. It was out of the ordinary. The disciples watched, amazed, as Jesus redefined leadership by taking a towel and washing their dirty feet. Knowing that both His hour of humiliation and hour of glory were near, He emptied Himself, showing His disciples the full extent of His love for them. Instead of being filled with pride, He picked up a towel. In that simple, selfless act, Jesus showed His disciples what love and humble service was all about. And He set up a model to be followed: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13: 14, 15).
Richard J. Foster says in his book, Celebration of Discipline, “The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or in a title, but in a towel. As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service.” The “towel” is the symbol of servanthood. Years ago, when my husband was an associate pastor, he used to arrive early to church on Sunday mornings to set up the coffee table (among other tasks) and, then, after the services were over, without a thought, he would take it down. It was a task that only required a few extra minutes, but needed to be done by someone.
In those days, the service was held in a gymnasium, so every Sunday we had to put together and take down a portable, make-shift church. To his surprise, he was asked by someone in church leadership to stop messing with the coffee because he shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing. After all, he was a pastor! But in that simple act he was following Christ; He was picking up his towel. Granted the towel wasn’t glamorous and didn’t put him up on the platform for all to see, but nevertheless it was an important act of service. More importantly, He was modeling the art of servanthood. He was demonstrating that he was not beneath the menial task. I wonder how many onlookers would have instructed Jesus to stop what He was doing, complaining that He was above foot washing. (We know, Peter was one.)
Amazingly, Christ washed His disciples’ feet with the same hands that created them. His mindset and actions communicated, “I cannot keep my privileges for myself, I must use them for others, and to do this, I will gladly lay them aside and pay whatever price is necessary.” Jesus used His heavenly privileges for the sake of others. He was not too important to do the unlovely or undesirable task. He went to the depths and limits in His service to men. Christ always thought of others, showing the way to greatness and challenging us to follow.
I wonder what towel the Lord is asking you to pick up today?
You know, Lord, how I serve You
With great emotional fervor
In the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You
At a woman’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
A fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
At a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder
If You pointed to a basin of water
And asked me to wash the calloused feet
Of a bent and wrinkled old woman
Day after day
Month after month
In a room where nobody saw
and nobody knew.
~By Ruth Harms Calkin
Reprinted from Tell Me Again, Lord, I Forget by Ruth Harms Calkin Ó1974 David C. Cook Publishing Co., Elgin, IL 60120. Used by permission.