God's mercy flows like a stream to us

Mercy flows like water, just as the water flows over the feet of the disciples. Peter is struck by Jesus’ willing to do for him what he was unwilling to do for others.

You may click here to read the passage, which is John 13:1-20


Today we continue our series, “Figuring Out Faith,” in which we are taking phrases from the hymn, “Come Thou Fount,” and looking at them through the lens of the disciple Peter’s life. 

Lamentations 3, beautifully written by the prophet Jeremiah captures the concept well, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. . .” Streams of mercy, never ceasing.

Streams of mercy flow like a river

Water is a powerful force. My dad said to me once, “Son, water always wins.” He wasn’t just talking about the damage water does to wood baseboards when a rambunctious boy ins’t careful with bathwater. Water can erode concrete, smooth rocks, and even reshape the very earth. Water also gives life.

Similarly, God’s mercy is a persistent force that can wear down our resistance and renew our hearts. Let’s explore this concept through the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.

Our Text in Context

This is the last meal Jesus will have with the disciples.  They have entered a home and there is no servant there to wash the dirt off their feet. Jesus looks around and none of the 12 are going to volunteer to do it. The Lord of the universe stoops down, gets the ba­sin of water, soaks the towel, and takes the feet of that tax collector, those fishermen, and that once hot-headed zealot, and washes their feet. 

As Jesus is washing, Peter is watching and grows more and more uncomfortable. “I’m Peter. I’m the Rock. Jesus called me the Rock and upon me he will build my church, so why do I feel the way I feel right now? Jesus said he was the Living Water and now he wants to drip water on my feet, but that water will not touch me. I am the rock.”

There’s a reason the game is called Rock, Paper, Scissors, because if it was Rock, Paper, Scissors, Water, you would always choose water. Peter, be warned. Rock is not match for water! 

Why Did Peter Say What He Said?

“You’ll never wash my feet!”

In 1st-century Judea, washing feet was a low-status job reserved for servants. Peter is uncomfortable that Jesus is upending the hierarchy. Peter realizes something very important, “Jesus is treating me in a way that I am unwilling to treat others, even those I know and love.”

Those guys, disciples, knew each other for 3 years and they walked into that room and either they were oblivious to the necessity of service or refused to serve. 

It wounds Peter’s pride and causes self-doubt. These two things (pride and self-doubt) are always related. They often see-saw. They are how we deal with feeling vulnerable and uncertain.

When we feel threatened or vulnerable, we can put on a hard, gruff, or aggressive exterior and we call that pride. We can puff ourselves up.

On the other hand, we can do the oppositive and speak or think low of ourselves. We make ourselves smaller. In some cases it’s because we are uncomfortable with being seen, because we think that being seen in that moment means being unloved by the person who sees you.

Some are uncomfortable with being seen, so they speak in exaggerated ways about their unworthiness. It can seem like humbleness, but it may actually be a cover and it may be an evasion of the truth.

Pride and self-doubt are ways to cover for being uncomfortable with authentic connection.

If you allow yourself to sit with this text, at least with me, when I realize God cares for me in ways that I’m often unwilling to care for others, it convicts me, humbles me, and makes me uncomfortable.

Worship and prayer and meditation is often working through what Peter feels, “I don’t want to be close to you, Jesus! It’s difficult to be in my feelings right now. I’m such a mess of pride and self-doubt.” 

Yet, Jesus stoops low not to condemn, but to care. 

Jesus Cares and Washes Us Clean

It’s important to understand why Peter said what he said because it helps us to understand ourselves, but what’s just as important is understanding what this passage teaches us about Jesus.

By taking the basin, water, and towel, Jesus demonstrates that even though he is their leader and lord, he will live with them in humility, service, and love. 

Why could Jesus do this? Relationships, even loving relationships, are dirty. So, how could Jesus do for others what they wouldn’t even do for him?

The reason Jesus could do this is because Jesus is neither prideful nor does he think too low of himself. He doesn’t think pridefully like Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon (Daniel), “Is this not the great Babylon I have built by my might and for the glory of my majesty?” Jesus didn’t say, “I am the king of creation, and you are here to serve me.” He said referring to himself, “I am here not to be served, but to serve.”

He didn’t think too low of himself. He didn’t say, “Since I’m here to serve that must mean I’m lower than you.” He is defying the hierarchy and he says so when he said elsewhere, “The first will be last and the last will be first.”

He had the appropriate view of himself and others. I am the Son of God and the Son of Man, and I am your leader who is here to serve you and to serve with you. What a lord we have.

The very first Christians thought this idea was so beautiful that they put it to poetry and created a song and included it in their worship. Translated into English it reads: 

Don’t look out just for yourself, but take an interest in others, too, just like Jesus, who though he was God did not think equality with God was something to cling to. Instead, he gave up divine privileges and took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above every name, that at his name every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Water and Mercy Win

­­As Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet, all of this is washing over the rocky coastline of Peter’s heart. He is contemplating what it means that the Lord would serve and care for him.

So Peter says, “Jesus, you will NEVER wash my feet.” The emphasis is not on MY feet, but on never. It is like someone say, “No, no, no. It can’t be.” 

Jesus said, “Well, Peter, if I don’t wash your feet then you can’t have a share of me. This is how the relationship works. Water is part of it. It’s going to drip on you.”

Over the past several weeks, maybe you’ve picked up on this pattern, but something will happen and Peter has his initial reflex (good or bad) and Jesus will explain his viewpoint, and Peter will soften and listen to Jesus. That is an example of water winning. Water does soften the soil also.

It happens here again. Jesus says, “Water is part of the relationship.” Peter then says, “Okay! Then wash me – head to toe!”

Jesus says, “Well, that’s my Peter! There you are! Someone who has taken a bath and then takes a trip, well, they don’t need to take a bath again, they only need to wash their feet. I’m only going to wash your feet.”

There is something so beautiful about these streams of mercy that come from God in Jesus Christ. Notice, Jesus stoops down with the water and Peter is immediately lifted up.

Peter’s tone immediately changes.

It is true that water wears down, but it is also true that water lifts up. And Jesus comes with truth and Jesus comes with grace. Jesus comes to tear down the hierarchy that separates and distorts relationships AND he comes as the Almighty who takes the weaker position to serve.

This stream of mercy has flowed over Peter and rightfully so, because not too long before this, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me because you are acting just like Satan!” And Jesus knows that Peter needs to be lifted up, because Peter is about to experience betrayal also. 

Jesus changes the conversation from Peter’s body to the body of the disciples. “Peter, I have washed all of you (your body), but part of you (singular) is unclean (your feet). I have washed all of you (the disciples), yet one of you (plural) is unclean (Judas).”

Judas doesn’t just betray Jesus; he betrays everyone. Peter is going to be beset by his own failures and he needs to remember that the streams of mercy wash the dirt away and lift up when we are cast down by our failures. 

That is a message that Judas refused to hear. Instead of being softened by the drip, drip of grace, he hardened himself. Like stiff concrete, his cold heart froze the movement of the gospel, and it shattered him. In his pride, instead of flowing with the streams of mercy, he betrayed Jesus and his friends and, in his despair, took his own life.

The Movements of Mercy

Finally, the streams of mercy are so powerful and good for us. They seem to move like the high and low tide.

When we are low, either through fear, failure, of the fact of our bad actions, the gospel of Christ comes to us and lifts us up and says, “You are a beloved child of God, and for you Christ Jesus died and for you he prays.” 

Like Lamentations, “the steadfast love of God never ceases.” Have you ever been surprised by the care of God? The action Jesus took surprised Peter. It shook him and humbled him: “Oh, you did something for me that I wouldn’t do for others. Let this shape me.”

Nor is it to stop with us. Jesus said, “I’ve set the example for you. What I have done to you, you are to do for others, and blessed are you if you do it.” Let us all be mindful of how we can give the mercy and care of God to others. 

And when we are headstrong, prideful, arrogant, and self-assured, those streams of mercy bring us low and say, “Beloved child of God who is created in the image of God, you are also a mortal. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one is exempt from needing mercy. No one. 

We all need a Savior who will take the basin, and the towel, and the water and wash the dirt away.

You have been cleaned by that water because of the Lord who invites you to eat with him at that Table. Come and eat at his Table and drink from the streams of mercy.

This sermon series is inspired by the work of www.sanctifiedart.org. The liturgical help and scriptural framing were beneficial for my study and sermon writing. Each week a phrase from the hymn “Come Thou Fount” is highlighted and viewed through the life of the disciple Peter.

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