THE BOWL OF WATER AND THE TOWEL (Part of Lent Series: Symbols of the Passion)

Canon Gary Philbrick, Lent 2, 9/III/17, 9.30a.m., St Mary’s, Fordingbridge.

Lent 2 (A)-FB-Ma17-Image

Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17

During this Lent we’re basing our sermons not only on the Scripture passage for the day, but also on the Symbols of the Passion, which we are adding to the Lenten Cross at the beginning of the Service each Sunday in Lent.  Today, the bowl of water and the towel.

I wonder whether people have noticed that we use a bowl of water and a towel in our service every Sunday.  It’s quite a discrete part of the Service, usually ‘masked’, as were by the hymn after the Peace.  At the end of the Offertory, after the elements of bread and wine are brought up, followed by the blessing of the Collection, our offering to God of what we own for use in his service, the fingers of the priest presiding at the Eucharist are washed, using a little bowl called a lavabo – from the Latin for washing, from which our words ‘lavatory’ and, via a slightly longer route, ‘laundry’ come.  As we pray over the various things which happen at the Offertory, I usually use the words from Ps. 51, the great Lenten Psalm, ‘Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ [Ps. 51:8], but some priests use words from Psalm 26: ‘I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go about your altar, to make heard the voice of thanksgiving and tell of all your wonderful deeds’ [Ps. 26:6-7].

The first time I was in Uganda, in 1990, I was asked to Preside at Communion, and when it came to the Offertory, I turned round, expecting to find the usual little bowl, instead to find myself presented with a plastic washing-up bowl, a bar of soap, and a towel, to do a proper hand-washing.  And in Kinkiizi, when Rachel and I were there the year before last, behind the altar in the Cathedral in Nyakatare, there is a large container of water on a stand, with a little tap in it, and all of those taking part around the alter were expected to wash their hands properly before moving on to the administration of Communion.

So our Lenten Symbols of the bowl of water and the towel should be a familiar part of our experience every Sunday, and we can relate them to various parts of Jesus’ life, such as his visit to the house of Simon the Pharisee related in Luke chapter 7 [36-50], where his host, rudely, didn’t offer him water and towel to wash his feet on arrival, but the woman who was a sinner anointed his feet with perfume and washed them with her hair.  Or we might think of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands on Good Friday, condemning an innocent man to death, and trying to pass on the responsibility for that decision to others.

But the Lenten Symbols of the bowl of water and the towel, of course, chiefly refer to the Last Supper, and to Jesus’ washing the feet of his Disciples, the Master in the role of the slave washing the feet of those of whom he is Lord [Jn 13:1-20].  We shall commemorate this at the Maundy Thursday Evening Service, taking place this year at Hyde Church, but there are lots of other themes of the story to be thinking about that evening, which is one of the reasons why we are focusing on these Symbols of the Passion throughout the Sundays of Lent.

Despite the protests of Peter and the other Disciples – ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?…’You will never wash my feet’ [Jn 13:6, 8] – despite their protests Jesus does wash them, and afterwards says, ‘‘Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ [Jn 13:12-15].

And here is the crux of this symbol, it’s about service.  As Jesus served his Disciples, so we should serve one another.  He is the Servant King, we are to be a serving people, a serving Church.

Throughout history, and throughout the world today, the Church has always been involved in care of the sick and dying, in hospitals and orphanages, in schools and universities, in founding charities such as The Samaritans or Christians Against Poverty, or Christian Aid, or many other of thousands of examples.  And that idea of service, of course, spreads over into individual lives of service, of people caring for neighbours, for family members, of people choosing servant occupations, of those choosing to travel to the ends of the earth to serve others.

I have often said that we come together for worship, to be renewed for service.  We come together to be refreshed, to learn, sit at the feet of the Gospel, and then we go from here to live lives of service, to be out there in the world for others.

In today’s Gospel reading, the fascinating conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus says to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ [Jn 3:3].  We have to be born again, by water and the Spirit, so that we can be sent out in Christ’s name to make a difference to the world around us.

So, as we consider these symbols of the bowl of water and the towel, and perhaps think of what was discussed at the Lent Groups this week, for those who were able to attend, perhaps we can reflect on what it means to be a servant Church, what it means for us to lead lives of service.  Perhaps we can think of the service we have received from others, and perhaps we can commit ourselves to a particular act of service for the coming week, something practical we can do for someone else.  Jesus said, ‘I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ [Jn 13:15].

Let’s have a couple of moments to reflect on these things, and then I’ll end with a short meditation and prayer.


You can’t wash someone else’s feet with one hand.  You’ve got to let go of everything and bend down and set to with both hands.  As Jesus did at the Last Supper.  As Jesus did when he abandoned everything and gave his life away for us.

 Lord, you humble yourself.

You bow down like a servant.

You give yourself away for us.

Teach us to learn from you

how to love

how to hold nothing back

how to give ourselves.

Fill us with that Spirit of yours

that Spirit of loving and serving

all our brothers and sisters

sincerely, without counting the cost.

 [Liturgical Institute, Trier, in ‘An Anthology for the Church Year, No. 109]

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