Editor’s note: the following reflection is part of the Ecumenical Water Network’s “Seven Weeks of Water” campaign to call attention to the importance of water to sustain life. ― Jerry L. Van Marter
“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 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..” (John 13.3-5)
Jesus uses water as an effective and surprising channel to demonstrate the central aspect of his vision for the disciples' ministry. According to John’s gospel the Last Supper took place in an undisclosed and secret room, in order for Jesus to be alone with his disciples and loved ones. There were no slaves or helpers to break the bread or to pour the wine ― just the gathered few.
Jesus uses this last meal to show his disciples the fundamental principles of his kingdom. The disciples might be tempted to dream about power and authority and their place in the coming kingdom, rather than Jesus’ humble acts of service.
It was difficult for the disciples to humble themselves and serve each other, which is the central focus of Jesus’ message. In practical terms, they did not follow the local custom of washing their feet before having a Passover meal, so Jesus reminded them both of what is right and proper, as well as how to serve.
It is in this setting that Jesus uses water to demonstrate the essence of his teaching. Water is used for cleansing and purifying the dirty feet of the disciples and becomes the symbol of restoration and of new life! The everyday act of foot washing becomes the vehicle for divine revelation.
Jesus envisions a new community which is not defiled by power and greed for authority, but of humility and servitude. But today in our world water has become a source of power and division.
Those who unjustly control the sources of water make it into a commodity, owned and sold by powerful monopolies, while those who cannot afford this basic human necessity have to be content with polluted water, endangering themselves. It is sadly the case that in the majority of the world today water has become the cause of death and not of life.
Water ― “the source of life” ― has been privatized and exploited to such an extent that only certain human communities can have access to its benefits. The lack of clean water is causing millions to die of diseases every year and human greed has robbed water of its purifying and restoring nature.
The challenge Jesus Christ sets for us by symbolically using water at his last meeting with his disciples says loud and clear that we have to learn to embody the message of love and service for the renewal and restoration of human communities. Jesus invites us to wash ourselves of our greed and desire for power.
Water must be restored to being a source of life and basic right of the whole of creation if the world is to carry on. We as Jesus Christ’s disciples, are once again invited to allow Christ’s love and challenge to wash over us, so that we may embody his message to others.
The Rev. Anderson Jeremiah is an ordained Anglican priest from the Church of South India and currently lectures in world Christianity at Lancaster University, United Kingdom.