First century foot ware consisted of a leather bottom with leather straps to hold it on your foot. The streets were dirt or cobblestone with multiple animals (horses, cows, goats, sheep) utilizing the roads as much as the human traffic. Needless to say, one's feet got dirty, smelly (dare I say nasty) walking in that environment. It was the expected practice of hospitality to have a basin of water and towels for one's guests. The "lowest" person in the household (typically a household servant or slave) had the task of washing the feet of the guests. The feet would be washed and dried, a dollop of perfumed oil was put on the head of the guest and the guest was greeted by the host with that classic kiss on the cheek we see in all of the videos of the middle east.
Jesus removes his outer robe, wraps a towel around himself (13:4) and does the work of the slave, the household servant; he proceeds to wash the feet of his disciples. He does this to set an example for the disciples to be servants for one another. Christian leadership is not about power over others it is about power with others. The Christian leader chooses to use his/her power in the service of others. Imagine a community where everyone treated everyone else with this level of profound deference and service. This exercise in foot-washing becomes a demonstration (dare I say a parable) for the focus of chapter 13 which is found in verses 34 and 35.
Jesus gives a new commandment. It is not a paint by the numbers do this don't do that commandment. It is a command to "love one another as I have loved you". Which is to say if our Lord and Teacher have chosen to serve all of us, it necessarily follows that we will choose to serve one another. The kicker in the passage for me is verse 35 that reads "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." The ultimate mark of Christian community is not seen in the "good works" we do -- we do the good works because it is an outgrowth of God's love for us and our love for the people of the world. Rather, the ultimate mark of the Christian community is COMMUNITY. A living, vibrant, energized, loving community that seeks what is best for one another. A community that loves each other is a Christ like community.
Instead, all to often, churches have the reputation for being armed camps, agenda and issue driven gatherings of humans. All too often, Christian community is a myth or a bad joke and church people devour one another, fighting to win at all costs . . . instead of showing and living sacrificial love for one another. I dream of Christian community that so profoundly cares for each other on the inside it becomes compellingly magnetic to those who are yet on the outside. I believe that is the life to which Jesus calls us. It is life that exhibits a radical commitment to living life in community.