Reflections on John 13:3-5, 12
Jesus…began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
So when He had washed their feet…
John 13:3-5, 12
Whose feet were the first feet?
John only records the conversation between Jesus and Peter. But did they all talk to Him? Did they all, like Peter, try and stop Him too? Was Peter first? Or maybe Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas?
And how long did it take? He was the only foot washer that night. To each one. Around the table. So how did He do it? When He finished with one, did He pick up the basin and move to the next on His knees? Or did He stand up each time? How long did He spend with each one? More than usual?
Andrew, James, John.
Did He have to get up from time to time, empty the dirty water, clean the basin, and fill it with fresh water again? Did He have to change towels? How often? And was there any sound in the upper room but Him? Who could eat? Who could talk while their Lord, their Teacher, washed their feet? Was He quiet? Did He talk to them at all? Did He speak out their name when He came to them?
Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon.
He didn’t do a few. He did them all.
At some point, He came to the feet of Judas. Was he first? Was he somewhere in the middle? No matter – He did not single Judas out. What He did to the others, He did to Judas, gently taking his feet and washing them. Even though, Jesus already knew Satan had come to him. He’d “put it into the heart of Judas” to betray Him. And then, before supper’s end, it would happen. The unimaginable.
Satan “entered into” Judas.
The Eleven had no clue. They had no idea who Jesus was talking about when – after the washing -- He announced, “one of you will betray me.” Again, “you are clean, but not all of you.” This can mean only one thing. Our Lord treated Judas as He did the others. He washed, He loved, He cared – each one the same.
How is that possible? How can anyone wash their betrayer’s feet?
But He did.
And this one moment is forever fixed in time. It is remembered by all who know the Savior’s love. For there He is, kneeling in front of Judas, holding his feet in His hands and washing. Spending just as much time. Giving just as much love.
We never forget.
And we do the same. We wash feet. All feet. It doesn’t matter who they are. What they’ve done. What they will do. How they’ve hurt us. How they will hurt us. We wash as He washed. We love as He loves. We show no partiality, ever.
For we are a people who never forget.
* * *
On June 8, 1997, John was consecrated bishop in front of twenty-five hundred people. It was a day of quiet, unspoken miracle. In the land of the northwest, dominated by Hutus, the Lord had called a Tutsi to lead His church.
But how does he do it?
Too many people were homeless. Too many widows, orphans, men roaming the streets without work, families locked in their homes afraid to work in the fields for fear of being killed by infiltrators. People needed food, clothing, medical treatment, education, vocational training, post traumatic counseling, and a tiny flicker of hope that peace and stability were close at hand. 1
Where does he start?
Making it worse, the church had lost its standing in the nation. There were too many stories of church officials, bishops, pastors – across denominational lines – who openly supported the Hutu government. Some of these church leaders, the world would later learn, actually participated in the genocide.
The church had become unsafe.
The people knew it. They experienced it. During the genocide, thousands ran to their local church thinking it was the only safe place left in the country. They locked the doors. They bolted the windows. But it didn’t help. In came the mortar shells, the hand grenades, killing them all. It’s one thing if the clergy died with them. It’s another if they took sides with the killers.
And that image stuck. Like a cartoon, dark and foreboding, there stands a priest dressed in a torn, dirty robe, holding a machete drenched in blood.
John had to change that image. How else would his nation recover? Where would it find the power to heal, forgive, and reconcile if not in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ? Something had to change.
John had to do different.
He traveled the northwest. He met with the clergy, preached in the churches, and assessed the needs of the people. Nothing concerned him more than the vast population of orphans. He knew, before genocide, roughly 60% of the Rwandan population had been kept illiterate.
To effect lasting change, these children, these orphans, needed schools. The best schools with the best teachers and curriculum.
He dreamed big. He wanted one of these schools, The Sonrise School, to be one of the best in the country. 2 He wanted it to produce a new generation of leaders who’d lead Rwanda into the future. And in the heart of those leaders, they’d know Jesus Christ as their Lord. That prayer – God kindly answered.
John was off to a good start.
Until the news came.
A few months after John was made bishop, his niece came for a visit. Her name was Madu. She was a sixteen year old high school student, about the same age as John and Harriet’s own daughters. She’d often come by. She and her cousins were close friends. Her visits always brought joy to the family.
But this particular time, she was scared.
She told John that she and her mother, her sister and brother, were afraid of the infiltrators. Ethnically, they were a mixed family. Her father was a Tutsi, her mother a Hutu. She feared the rebels had already targeted them. She wanted to know if her family could come and stay with John and Harriet. They lived in another town. Perhaps they could find a house nearby?
John later told me, “I was able to reassure her that the provisions for the move were cared for and that they should come immediately.”
Madu went back home and made preparations.
But that same night, the rebels came.
John’s description of that night was graphic and horrifying. The infiltrators didn’t just kill Madu. They tortured her. They raped her. They let her feel the machetes slowly dismember her.
“We could not conceive,” John said to me, “none of us could, the pain this dear girl went through. To this day, we deeply grieve her loss.”
And not just her death. They killed her mother, brother, and sister.
“Early the next morning,” John reported, “some of our Christians from that town came out of hiding and brought the news to us. We had to make burial arrangement but the soldiers would not let me attend the burial of my family. They told me, as a bishop coming to this town, I would attract public attention and many more people would die.”
John and his family were left to mourn in silence.
The war was not over. Everybody said it ended in the summer of 1994. But it did not. Three years later, in the northwest, the war raged on.
Killing their own flesh and blood.
The next spring, Erilynne and I went to visit them in Rwanda. The grief was still palpable -- as if Madu and her family had died only weeks before.
“It was a tragic and devastating moment in our lives,” they shared with us. “It was very painful for our children.”
It shook them, shook them deep.
They were Tutsis in a Hutu world. Their job was to preach Jesus to them because they knew that by His cross, forgiveness was possible. By His resurrection, reconciliation was possible. The Rwandan people could hear the message of reconciliation from secular leaders. But they needed more than the message. They needed its power and that power comes from Jesus Christ.
Power to comfort, heal, and cleanse the soul.
But how could they do it?
John and Harriet were suffering. Every time they traveled the northwest, the rebels – the infiltrators – could be anywhere, intermingled in the crowds. Maybe the same people who’d killed their family. And what if they were, could they forgive them? And how does that happen? How does the Savior’s love work? How do we love the people who’ve violently trampled and violated our souls? How do we do what our Savior did?
And get down to carefully, compassionately wash their feet?
1 Barnum, Never Silent. This story can be found on pages 51-68.
2 For more information about The Sonrise School, go to www.mustardseedproject.org