This article was presented as a sermon during Communion Sabbath on April 9, 2011, at the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. Elements of the oral style have been retained.—Editors.
hen you are in a crowded elevator of strangers, what do you look at? Do you become fascinated with the digital floor indicator above the door? Chances are you are looking either at that or at the buttons and lights, nervously fidgeting, hoping to get to your floor quickly. It can be an awkward social experience, especially if the elevator is full of people.
Some suffer from claustrophobia, which is a very real condition. But even for those who don’t fear enclosed places, there is still the matter of personal space. How large is your personal space?
Social scientists have researched this topic and have determined that personal space, defined for an American culture, is about two feet.1
Which means that as individuals, we protect two feet around us. Think of it as a bubble of security. This is a psychological zone, of course—something that cannot be seen, but certainly can be felt. When someone gets too close or enters our comfort zone of personal space we can feel somewhat threatened or intimidated.
Back in 1966 Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cross-cultural communication researcher, developed a diagram of four concentric circles that exist psychologically around people. These invisible yet real circles range from the “public ring,” which ranges from 12 to 24 feet from a person, to the closer social ring, which reaches within four feet of one’s body, to the personal ring, coming in even closer to two feet. Finally, there is the ring of intimacy, which extends approximately one and a half to two feet away from your body. Usually we don’t like people invading this space, unless they are related, of course. If it is our husband or wife, we want them in our personal space every now and then! And we sometimes want our children in our personal space as well. But if a stranger comes too close, in American culture, we feel uncomfortable and maybe even a little intimidated.
But there are some cultures in which people hug and touch and are quite comfortable living in close proximity to each other. To a large degree culture determines where one’s personal space is, but even in those cultures in which physical closeness is a way of life, there are times a person just wants to be alone.
The theory of personal space was first noted by Heini Hediger, a Swiss zoologist who studied proxemics in zoo animals. Prior to 1966, when Hall first suggested the concept of personal space, he consulted with Hediger, who noted that these invisible concentric circles also exist around animals. He observed that some animals are very protective of their personal space, and if it is encroached upon, the claws and teeth come out. Actually, I have known some people to behave that way too!
The idea of personal space is not new. Even in the Talmud, the codified rabbinic commentary on the law written centuries ago, there is reference to one’s personal space. Within the Jewish tradition there is an understanding of the concept of personal space and even a description of its dimensions. The personal space extends to approximately six to eight feet around the person, and there are certain circumstances in which it is inappropriate for someone to come within that space. 2
So this concept and understanding of personal space was true even back in the days when Jesus lived on earth.3
Jesus and Personal Space
Have you noticed as you read the Gospels that Jesus often came within the personal space of people who were in need and that He made no apologies for this? He would reach out and touch them—even those who had diseases that rendered them “untouchable” in their society. There were people who said, “Look, these lepers are unclean. Do not go near them. Do not touch them. If You do, You surely will get sick and die a miserable death.”
Of course, Jesus, the Great Physician, ignored these prohibitions. These people were poor and pitiable. They needed to feel the touch of someone who cared. These were social outcasts who were assigned to live in quarantined villages outside the boundaries of “healthy” society. They were forced to live in isolation, hidden away from family and friends. Unless they were healed, they would never again experience the touch of a “clean” human being. They would die alone. Imagine what that would be like.
The Importance of Touch
Many studies have been conducted regarding the value and benefits of physical touch and its application in science and medicine. The Touch Research Institute (TRI), a part of the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, Florida, has carried out more than 100 studies concerning touch and found very significant evidence, including: faster growth in premature babies, reduced pain, decreased autoimmune disease symptoms, lowered glucose levels in children with diabetes, and improved immune systems with people with cancer.4
Another interesting study done by James A. Coan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, reveals the power of touch in diminishing pain levels. His study involved analyzing brain scans of married women who were experiencing physical pain.5
“We spotted changes that may help to shed light on an age-old mystery,” Coan says. Here’s what he discovered: As soon as the women touched the hands of their husbands there was an instant drop in activity in the areas of the brain involved in fear, danger, and threat. The women, he goes on, who had been exposed to experimental pain while they were scanned, were calmer and less stressed. A similar but smaller effect was triggered by the touch of strangers.
Touch therapy is what it is called—human touch. A sympathetic touch, a hug, that “knowing” pat on the shoulder can make a world of difference, especially in the life of someone who is suffering and in need of comfort.
Now, of course, when it comes to Jesus’ interactions with people there was something beyond just His physical touch. There was a redemptive element, a supernatural, miraculous cleansing of disease and pain by the healing power of God. The Holy Spirit was working through Jesus as He touched the sick. But the human factor of Jesus’ touch should not be discounted. These people, whether they were sick or not, needed to feel the physical touch of someone who cared.
An Important Service
Now place this within the context of celebrating the Communion service. As you know, a part of a Seventh-day Adventist Communion service is what we call the ordinance of humility, or the foot-washing service. It is also an age-old practice—one that has been in the Christian church for generations.6
Unfortunately, this important service has somehow fallen by the wayside among many faith communions and churches. Some think it is only the symbolism of service that really matters, so it is not necessary to perform the actual act of washing feet. But think how much is missed by those who do not kneel down, when you don’t kneel down and touch the naked feet of another human being—especially when that human being may be somewhat of a stranger to you. There is a special spiritual connection and bond that is formed there at that moment.
The Example of Jesus
This is what Jesus did for His disciples. We are told in John 13 that on the night before He was to be crucified He took a towel and a basin and washed His disciples’ feet—something rabbis just did not do for their students.
It was in fact an unthinkable act as far as the students were concerned.7
One would never allow his teacher to do this. But Jesus took on the role of a servant—a servant leader. He girded Himself in a towel and stooped to wash the feet of His students. He touched them in a way they had never been touched by Him before.
No wonder Peter recoiled when it was his turn! He said, “Lord, no! You cannot do this. You are the teacher! I am the student. I am Your disciple. You cannot do this for me!” “ ‘If I do not wash your feet,’ Jesus answered, ‘you will no longer be My disciple’ ” (John 13:8, TEV).8
Peter responded, “Lord, do not wash only my feet, then! Wash my hands and head, too!” (verse 9, TEV).
There was a life-changing touch in that room that night, at least for one disciple, and I’m sure for the others as well. There was personal space encroachment in the upper room. That’s how some might have viewed it. A touch of love, and compassion, and service is how they understood it.
They didn’t completely understand what they had just experienced. We know this because after Jesus was finished, He stood up and asked, “Do you understand what I have just done to you?” (verse 12, TEV). Because there must have been some blank looks around the circle, Jesus explained it to them. “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you” (verses 14, 15, TEV). And the implication is yes, do this even for perfect strangers who are seeking salvation and cleansing.
Understanding Grace and Dispensing Mercy
What kind of leader, what kind of king, does this? The one who understands grace; the one who dispenses mercy. The one who knows that His subjects can be cleansed in no other way than by His healing touch; by coming close and laying hands on them.
Jesus sets this as an example for us. And so in our faith communion we follow His example. We wash one another’s feet. But too often we do it in a kind of septic way. This is polite society, and we want to make sure we aren’t encroaching a little too closely into someone’s personal space, and we want to do it properly and in the right way.
But let’s not allow the lesson of the upper room to get lost in formality. Let’s think about what we are doing, and let’s pray about it. And then participate in a spirit of service, in the same way Jesus did when He knelt at the feet of His disciples.
Something else happened when Jesus touched those men and bathed their feet. It was a symbol of the cleansing they needed even though they had been baptized already. That was revealed in the encounter with Peter once again when he said, “Wash me all over,” and Jesus responded, “I don’t need to do that—you’ve already been washed. You’ve been baptized. But you’ve picked up a little dirt along the way since your baptism. That has to be taken care of. That has to be washed away. You don’t have to go back down to the Jordan River and go through that ceremony, as wonderful and as beautiful as that is. But now, something has to be cleansed here and now in this place. Peter, I’m here to do it. Do you want this? Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8-10, author’s paraphrase).
This is an invitation extended to us today. Do we want the cleansing, healing touch of Jesus Christ? Have you picked up a little dirt between now and the last time you participated in a foot-washing service? Perhaps you need this cleansing, this reminder of what your baptism means. If you are a committed disciple of Jesus Christ, do you
want to have a part with Jesus today?
It is important to note that the Communion service involves such personal, tactile experiences. Not only do we bathe one another’s feet in a spiritual act; we ingest emblems of His broken body and shed blood. We take them into ourselves, thereby saying that we want Christ “in us,” for He is the only source of our salvation. Powerful, simple, lessons that teach what nothing else can teach. It is a life-changing experience.
I know there are places of worship in which people show a lot of emotion in their worship. They wave their hands, stand, clap, shout and praise, and we can debate the appropriateness of it or not. But what I am suggesting today is if you are looking for a tactile, hands-on experience, if you are one of those kinesthetic learners that has to “feel” the Spirit move, then you have come to the right place. Here you have the physical symbols. You have the physical experience of the upper room. We have Jesus reaching out to touch us. Will you receive it? It is for your healing.
1 Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).
3 While there is some uncertainty as to whether a given rabbinic tradition reflects Jewish practice during the time of Jesus, it does illustrate the kinds of concerns that were common in first-century Israel.
5 James A. Coan, in Psychological Science, December 2006.
6 Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (1996), vol. 10,
pp. 559, 560.
7 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1028.
8 Bible texts credited to TEV are from the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1976, 1992; New Testament: Copyright © American Bible Society 1966, 1971, 1976, 1992.
Jerry Lutz is senior pastor of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. This article was published July 28, 2011.