Towel & Basin

By Tim Bentum  |  September 6th

The title ‘Towel & Basin’ is a metaphor taken directly from John 13 where Jesus leaves us with perhaps his most powerful leadership image: the greatest leader the world has ever known literally bending over with a towel wrapped around his waist and with a basin of water, washing his followers’ feet. What can we take away from this transformative account of Jesus’ ministry?

On the face of it, we have likely heard this story many times and our thoughts often revolve around the idea that a leader needs to be ready to unclog toilets or sweep floors in the school building in service of the greater vision for the school and as a model for others. Although these types of tasks are important and are often a part of a principal’s job description (often under a catch-all line that reads something like: ‘the principal shall be responsible for all miscellaneous items that can and do arise in a school building’), I would like to invite you a level deeper into this powerful story.

Skye Jethani, popular author and podcaster, wrote a provocative devotional piece late last year on John 13 which I will briefly summarize here. For a deeper understanding of what the towel and basin metaphor means for leaders, Jethani invites us to consider the direct context of the story. Jethani notes that the apex of the story is Jesus’ exchange with Peter, where Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. As modern westerners we may understand this exchange by thinking that Peter may have been embarrassed for Jesus and thus refused the gesture.

However, in the ancient Jewish context, Jethani believes the reason Peter didn’t want Jesus washing his feet was because, as a follower of Jesus who was his rabbi, Peter’s own identity was inextricably bound up in Jesus in a way that modern, individualistic westerners don’t immediately grasp. Peter had in many ways committed his life to the person and idea of Jesus as a conqueror with an agenda to eventually lead a political revolution. In binding up his life with Jesus, Peter was picturing himself at Jesus’ ‘right hand’ in the new political order. That was Peter’s identity and vision for the future. In this sense he was not embarrassed for Jesus, he was embarrassed for himself. Peter understood in this instance the implications of the ‘towel and basin’ and what that meant for him and his future if he was to truly model the way of Jesus.

This is a crucial point and Jethani believes it is the key message Jesus is trying to communicate to us millennia later, specifically for leaders. The first step in embodying the healthiest version of yourself as a leader is dying to yourself, your own agenda, and your own identity. The daily battle to lay down your own life, take up your own cross and follow Jesus is at the heart of great leadership. Here is how Jethani concludes his devotional:

“In short, John 13 is about leaders who’ve crucified their own desires and are set free to truly love like Jesus. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus was not showing us a more effective way to lead others. He was showing us what it really means to die to ourselves.”

As you start this school year, perhaps the most important thought you can carry around with you is that your identity is not your own, your agenda will not get you where your school community needs to go, and the best way to experience life to the fullest is actually to lose it in pursuit of greater aims in the larger Kingdom narrative. The ‘towel and basin’ posture of Jesus is a powerful picture to model as you start your year. My hope and prayer is that you experience the peace of God as you embrace your true identity in Christ.

Tim Bentum is the Director of Leadership and External Relations at Edvance.

Photo Credit: basin, by Flood G., Flickr