I’ve been thinking about towels, something found in every home and locker room. It’s like they have a culture of their own. While on the job, bathroom towels hang out in color-coordinated family groups of large, medium, and small. But kitchen towels are less sophisticated, hanging out on refrigerator handles, out of drawers, and sometimes flung over rods. On the top of the towel hierarchy are the guest towels. They are usually the newest and softest, and more apt to match their surroundings. But some hang around for decorative purposes only, and are never really used at all. And at the bottom of the pile are the old veterans, worn thin from service, now designated to the hardest and dirtiest jobs.
Most towels put in some work and then hang around until they’re too dirty and smelly to use again. Then after a vigorous romp in the washer and a tumble in the dryer, they lie in wait in drawers or pile up in linen closets. Others sit precariously atop shelves, waiting to be used. And though with service comes wear and tear, every towel, even the proud guest towel, knows service to be its highest value.
The night when Jesus ate his last meal with his disciples, before being arrested and sentenced to the cross, he had a towel with him. During that meal Jesus poured water into a wash basin and began to do something usually done by a servant. He began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with that towel. I’m not suggesting that Jesus used an old, frayed towel that night, worn by former service. Maybe the owner of the upper room where they gathered had put out the best guest towels. But whatever the shape of this towel, torn and tattered or soft and newly woven, it was used in the service of others.
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet,” said Jesus. “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done for you.”
And that’s how the towel and wash basin became a symbol of humble acts of service.