By Wayne Culmore
The following article is adapted from a morning devotional delivered October 29, 2015, at the North American Division year-end meeting. Some elements of the oral presentation remain intact.—Editors.
The night Jesus and His disciples walked into the upper room was pivotal. Jesus’ public ministry has come to a conclusion, and He now turns the full attention of His teaching on His disciples. As Jesus and His disciples enter into the upper chamber, they see the table. In the corner of the room they also see a towel, a jug of water, and a basin. Perhaps they pause for just a moment before entering the room, and look around to see if the foot washer is there. Maybe they think to themselves, Peter and John were supposed to make all the arrangements. This should’ve included someone to wash our feet.
I’m sure that as the disciples recline at the table, they are not feeling very comfortable, because they are at the table with dirty feet. Perhaps each one may have begun to justify in their own minds why it wasn’t their job to do it. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I certainly have. There have been many occasions when I could have washed dirty feet, but I thought, H’mm, maybe somebody else will do it.
I want you to consider two things from the upper room account, found in John 13:3-17: What Jesus did, and what Jesus taught. This is what servant leadership is all about. The Bible says Jesus took off His garment (verse 4). He wrapped a towel around His waist, poured water into a basin, and began to wash His disciples’ feet. Rather than begin with a lecture, Jesus gave them an example. The impact He made on the disciples that night was tremendous. It would not have been the same if He would’ve turned to Peter and John and said, “I want you to take that basin and pour water into it, and I want you to wash the feet of your fellow disciples. And while you’re at it, I’m going to give you a lecture on service, on the importance of serving one another. ”Everyone in that room saw the need, but only Jesus did something about it.
Finding “Dirty Feet”
Here’s an experience you may be able to relate to: When your kids, whom you’ve helped get through college, offer to do something for you. My wife was visiting her sister, and I was home alone one Friday afternoon, when my adult son asked me to dinner. Usually he’d call and say he’d like for us to go out to dinner, which meant that we were going to dinner, but I was going to pay. But this time he made it clear that he was paying; he even demanded that I leave my wallet at home. My son and I went to a very nice, very fancy restaurant in downtown Portland. I opened the menu and gulped. I looked for the cheapest thing I could find. He knew what I was doing, so he closed the menu on me and said, “I’m going to order.” So he ordered, paid for the meal, and said, “We’re going to another little restaurant where they have these delicious desserts. In fact, all they have is desserts.” The prices of the luscious desserts, nestled in this big glass case, were just incredible.
“Why don’t we share one?” I suggested. He agreed.
We left, and as we walked down the road, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned, and an older woman, probably between 80 and 85, with snow-white hair, beautiful face, and beautiful, expressive eyes, spoke: “Sir, would you help me?”
“Sure,” I replied, “What can I do to help you?”
“I just spent my last dollar paying for my rent, and I have no money for food.”
I thought, Oh, no, I left my wallet at home. I turned to my son, but all he had were credit cards. I didn’t think about going to an ATM at the time, so I sadly told this dear woman, “I’m sorry; we have no cash.”
We made our way to the car, and on the drive home I could not get this woman’s face out of my mind. I kept talking to my son about it again and again. I felt terrible. I got home and tidied up my sermon for the next day. I got up the next morning and went to Sabbath school. The lesson was on helping the poor—of all things. A quote in the lesson study was from Tony Campolo: “When we look into the eyes of the poor, we look into the face of Jesus.” I knew there was something special about that woman I saw in downtown Portland!
I preached a Reader’s Digest version of my sermon. I was invited to many different places for lunch because my wife was out of town. But I had one plan: to get home, change my clothes, and go downtown. I wanted to look into the face of Jesus again. I grabbed a handful of almonds and an apple—and what money I had in the house—and made my way downtown.
I walked up and down that street looking for the woman from the night before. I asked shop owners if they had seen the woman with snow-white hair. No one had. I asked some street people if they had seen her, and they too said no. I kept passing one young woman who was sitting on a piece of cardboard with a sign that read “Desperate, want to go home, need money.”
The last time I walked by her a voice in my head said, “It’s for her that you’re here today.” So I turned around and sat down on the concrete next to her, on the piece of card-board, and asked,
“Would you please tell me your story?”
She said her brother had talked her into moving out here to go to school. “But last night,” she said, “the police came knocking on the door. They took my brother away because he was involved in drugs, which I did not realize. Now I wanna go home. I wanna go home.”
I told her about my son and what he had done for me. I told her about the white-haired woman and why I had come downtown. Then I said, “There’s not a doubt in my mind that the reason I am here right now is that God has brought me here to you.”
She asked, “What do you do for a living?”
I told her I was a pastor, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Then she replied, “When I go home, I’m going to look for a Seventh-day Adventist church.”
About this time I was ready to levitate right off of that cardboard. God had used me. I talked to this girl, helped her, and she got up off the cardboard. We hugged each other and she went to the bus station to head home. I started walking down the street, feeling pretty good about what had happened.
I got to a crosswalk, and a voice in my head said, “Look up.” Above me was the name of the street. It was called Lovejoy. The young woman I had just helped was named Joy.
I could hardly hold back the tears. I’d made myself available for God to use, and He had. I ran to my car. I opened it up and sat there with my head in my hands. I began to cry. Not because I had helped Joy, but because of all the times God had opened up doors of opportunity for me to get down and wash dirty feet and I had missed them.
After Jesus washed His disciples’ feet He asked this question, recorded in John 13:12: “Do you know what I have done to you?” I submit to you this morning that what Jesus did goes way beyond just getting our feet washed. It goes way beyond just getting our needs met. It’s about total transformation of our character, transforming how we should think and how we should act as fully devoted followers of Christ. It’s not just about becoming a servant. It’s becoming a servant like Jesus.
It’s about looking at the other person as more important than ourselves. It’s about getting way outside our comfort zone and showing compassion. It’s about total transformation of our character. Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (verse 15).
If my experience with God is only about me, only about getting my needs met, then I’ve truly missed what Jesus and His teachings are all about; and I have created nothing more than a gospel according to Wayne Culmore. If church is just about me, if church is just about getting what I want, having everything done the way I want, the music I want, the type of worship service I want, then I have missed the whole point of the teachings of Jesus, and I have become nothing more than a narcissistic Christian.
The greatest human tragedy is for a person to go through life and never experience and receive Christ, His mercy, and His grace. The second-greatest human tragedy is that a person would experience Christ, would experience His love, His grace, but never take up the basin and the towel, never internalize the teachings of Jesus, which change us from the inside out.
There are depths of Jesus’ love that can be found and experienced only through the process of serving others. I had the privilege of representing Canada on a musical gymnastic team put together by the General Conference in the early 1970s. We did our gymnastics, and we would also witness in parks and on the streets in the cities we visited.
I will never forget my experience with “George” in New York City. The team was staying at a youth center near Times Square. In the early seventies there were prostitutes and winos everywhere. It was a mess.
The team was told that if we went out on the streets, we needed to go in groups; so we did. Every night we gathered in a circle at the center and sang and shared, having worship together.
One night during worship several team members were a little late. After a few songs I heard a door open. I looked up and saw a couple of my friends come through the door with a special guest. They had brought in someone who had been living on the streets for a long time. The smell that entered the room was nauseating. As they made their way toward the group, I kept thinking, Lord, please don’t let that person sit next to me.
And you know where he sat: right next to me. The smell was so bad that my eyes began to water and I began to gag. I found out his name and said, “George, would you mind if
I took you upstairs and gave you a shower? ”He didn’t think that was a very good idea. I asked him again. He said, “No.” I asked him a third time, and he finally caved.
My two friends and I went up to the next floor and into the shower room. We began to peel the clothes off George, and I mean literally peel the clothes off him.
I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. George never went to the restroom like we do; he just went in his clothing. We put him in the shower, and imagine it: here are these three young fellows all with our hands in the shower trying to clean George, doing the best we possibly could.
It wasn’t working well until one of my friends turned to me and said, “Wayne, this is only gonna work if you get in the shower with George.”
“I am not getting in that shower with George,” I said.
Then he said to me, “Jesus would.”
That’s all the motivation I needed. I got into that shower, and I scrubbed and I scrubbed and I scrubbed. By the time George got out of that shower he looked like a ripe tomato. He was clean.
A number of the team members donated clothing. We shaved him and cut his hair. The transformation was so great, in fact, that when we came downstairs and walked out to the rest of the team someone asked, “Where’s
George was a good-looking man with a sad story. He had lost everything to alcohol: his job, his family, everything. He’d been living on the street for a number of years. Now he looked good on the outside, but he was still sick on the inside.
George sat next to me again. I tried to give him some food. He couldn’t eat very much, just a few crumbs. Then he wanted to leave. I didn’t want him to go. But we had to let him go.
The only thing he left with was his hat. On the inside of his New York Yankees baseball hat was a card that allowed him to go and get a little bit of money every month. I’m not a Yankees fan, and so I stuck on it some little stickers
that had a happy face on it with the words “Smile, God loves you.”
The next morning I wanted to see if I could find him before we left, and I did. George was right back in the gutter, and he had a bottle of wine in his hand. I’m ashamed to tell you how I felt, but I wanted to kick him, shake him. I got on the bus and sat down in my seat heavy in self-righteousness. As the bus started to pull away, there was a bang on the back of the bus. There was George, standing behind the bus with tears coming down his face, pointing at his hat that said “Smile, God loves you.”
This time I went back to my seat, not sitting in selfrighteousness, but thanking God for all the times I had fallen and Jesus had picked me back up and washed me and cleansed me and made me whole and covered me with His robe of righteousness and accepted me just as if I had never sinned.
Hearts of Service
Those who lose their lives in service to others are the ones who ultimately find it. The love of Christ in our hearts, given to others, makes us feet washers. In John
13:14 Jesus directly and specifically tells His disciples the point of His actions. The lesson He wants us to learn is simple: Wash one another’s feet. Humble ourselves.
We get down to wherever the need is and do something about it.
Feet washers are those who see a need and do something about it.
I carry a little piece of cloth (it used to be snow white but is now kind of dark and dirty) in my pocket or in my Bible—it reminds me of Philippians 2. If I’m tempted to do something, I’ll just rub it between my fingers to remind myself that I have been called to serve. I keep it in Philippians 2 because of these words in which Paul asks four questions and then answers: “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate?” (Phil. 2:1, NLT).*
Notice what he says next: “Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (verses 2, 3).
How different life would be in our committees, in our churches, in our homes, if we lived by this, if we looked at the other person as more important than ourselves. Jesus says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).
It’s a whole lot easier to talk about service, to think about service, to fantasize about great service, and to read about what others are doing than to actually get down to where the need is and do something about it. May the Lord open our eyes to dirty feet; and may He empower us through His Holy Spirit and give us a heart of service.
* Texts marked NLT are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.