Throughout our Lenten series we have been studying many different practices, iconography, fasting, prayers of petition, walking a labyrinth, and prayers of confession. Though many of these practices have the concerns of others in mind, most of those practices can be done just fine alone. Today’s practice however, requires interacting with others in a way that might not be the most comfortable thing.
Have you ever watched the TV show, “Dirty Jobs?” In this show the host, Mike Rowe takes on some of the dirtiest jobs that there are out there. And boy does he get dirty. From trash, to sewage, to tar, to animal carcasses, Mike Rowe has dealt with all of these things, and given the outside world an often-nauseating look into each of these worlds. I know there are some of you in this congregation that have experienced your own dirty jobs, working with manure or animals or other such things in ways that would make your suburban-raised pastor faint.
What I’m trying to get at here is that one of the dirtiest jobs in Jesus’ time was that of a foot washer. In Jesus’s time traveling primarily involved walking. There was no plumbing of any kind, there was no pavement, no real regard for sanitation. People’s feet were very, very, very, dirty.
How strange is it then that when Jesus comes to Bethany, Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. Her hair! The thought of it grosses me out. Her concern was clearly not for her own vanity, but for worship of Jesus Christ.
In the dirt and in the grim of those road weary feet of Jesus there was also beauty. These feet weren’t the feet of someone who kept at a distance. They were the feet of someone who walked among the people. Jesus was both God and human, and in his walking he was very human. If you have the power of heaven and earth, why would you choose to limit yourself to being constrained within a body? And if you must be in a body, is it really necessary to do all of that walking? Couldn’t he fly or in the very least, ride a donkey?
My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this, “The four gospels are peppered with accounts of [Jesus] walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”
In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 52:7 we heard
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
This passage in Isaiah exults the feet of ministry. Feet of peace, good news, and salvation are much more than the dirt that may cover them. Their beauty stems from the goodness of the person attached to them, but it also stems from their own work: their ministry of walking on the earth, of bearing goodness as they travel. This ministry will make them dirty, at times will cover them with callouses, blisters, heel spurs, but these feet are beautiful because they are feet that are in motion.
This is the call also of the disciple. We are not meant to sit around with clean feet. We are meant to be in motion. We are meant to keep our eyes open, our hearts open to those who might cross our paths. We are meant to get our own feet dirty, or in the case of Mary, our own hair. Mary’s act of love for Jesus required a disregard for her own well being both hygienically and financially.
In response to today being St. Patrick’s day, a seminary friend of mine, Rachel Jenkins wrote this lectionary themed limerick: “There once was a woman named Mary. /Though Jesus’s feet were quite hairy, /she opened the jar /and poured out the nard /and foreshadowed that he would be buried?”
Her alternative last line is: “and everyone spit out their sherry.”
They were indeed shocked and probably would’ve spit out their sherry if they were drinking it at the time. This perfume that Mary was to be used for burials. Though Jesus was frequently pointing to the short life before him, only Mary seemed to understand that perfume for burial was exactly what this situation called for. Jesus’ ministry was not leading to election to a political post or to celebrity status; it was leading to the crucifixion, it was leading to death.
Mary immediately receives criticism for the wastefulness of her actions. As if on an episode of “The Price is Right,” Judas readily identifies the 300 denarii that went into purchasing that perfume. He was upset with how much money she “wasted.” As a bit of an aside, the author of this gospel tells us “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6) Judas desire was not for the money to serve someone else, but rather that it might serve him. He was looking not for the humility of service, but for personal promotion.
While Jesus was alive, the disciples never seemed to really understand what Jesus was calling them to do and be in their world.
Luke 9:46-48 tells us:
“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’”
Jesus was always doing things like that, making flipping things on their heads and reordering their expectations.
In Matthew 20:26-28 Jesus corrects the disciples saying:
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
And in the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, he demonstrates this service to his disciples in one of the most unexpected of ways. He takes on the “dirty job” of washing their feet:
“[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4-17)
Richard J. Foster writes in his book, “A Celebration of Discipline”: “As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service…. The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or title, but in a towel.” 
Contemporary society is familiar Jesus’ call in Matthew 16:24 to deny ourselves, taken up the cross and follow Jesus. We are much less familiar with the call to take up a towel and follow Christ.
Taking up the towel involves kneeling at feet. Taking up the towel involves making ourselves dirty in the process. Taking up the towel in the way that Jesus demonstrates involves washing the world clean. Not just the parts that need some light dusting, but the parts that need a deep scrubbing. Jesus washes the feet of Judas. All throughout the story of this last supper Jesus points to his knowledge of Judas’ imminent betrayal, but still he kneels before him and serves him. This is the sort of servant-hood to which Jesus is calling us.
Foster writes about this: “We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.” 
When we choose servant-hood out of love of God and desire for the care for the world that God loves, we are taking up that towel of service. When we go out to share God’s love, our feet become beautiful. May we seek to share God’s love with all we meet in both word and action. Amen.