Unless I Wash You

A word for Maundy Thursday, written for a service canceled due to the weather…


As a Southern Baptist teenager, I got a lot of teasing from classmates who wanted to know if I was a Foot-Washin’ Baptist.

But I was an urban Baptist, and the worship services at my mom’s church weren’t that different from the services I visited at my dad’s Methodist church down the street. I knew we baptized differently, but I knew nothing about foot washing. It wasn’t until I grew up and joined a Congregational UCC church that I experienced foot washing. It came on a retreat at the end of a spiritual formation class.

For about three months a group of adults, some who had never known each other before, met weekly as a large group. In between classes we met with assigned partners to do “homework.” My mother had just died, and it had been just a little more than a year since I lost a baby, and I was at the depths of vulnerability. It’s funny, I hardly remember anything about the foot-washing except the basins of water and the slight embarrassment some people seemed to feel about showing their feet to one another. And that it felt very, very loving.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" (John 13:6-9, NRSV)

What’s the modern equivalent of foot washing?

Well, it’s not a pedicure, that’s for sure, although like the apostle Peter I went from rejecting them as sybaritic to liking them so well I occasionally turn my hands over for massaging and painting as well.

I think washing others feet means placing ourselves lower than others, which means letting go our dignity, our pride and our fear to simply serve.

Who are the foot washers now?

They care for our elderly, our infants, our helpless. They clean things no one else will clean, pick things no one else will pick, mop the bloody floors in the operating rooms and wipe the behinds of Alzheimer’s patients.

Washing feet doesn’t seem like much by comparison. We don’t get it because we don’t live in dusty places and wear sandals all the time and have plenty of hot running water. It was a symbol of putting off the illusion of caste and hierarchy, of upending the social order as surely as was throwing over the tables in the Temple.

It’s reversing the power differential that matters, not the feet themselves.

What does that mean, then, for those of us who find ourselves on the receiving end of the foot washing?

I suppose it means admitting we are no longer powerful enough to manage everything by ourselves. It means letting others take care. It means relaxing our grip on importance for one darn minute.

And it pushes me to go further in turning over the tables. Maybe receiving such caring attention requires us to stop assuming we are unlovable or unforgivable, to relinquish beliefs which make us self-protective and unbending.

When we put our feet in the basin, we upend not only the external order but also the internal order. We consent to believing that we are loved.

“Unless I wash you”–unless you let me love you, you are not part of what I am doing.

Tonight, wherever you are, whether your service stops at Communion, or goes on to Tenebrae, or is canceled due to snow and downed power lines, remember you are loved by the one whose body would be broken, whose blood would be poured out, the one who washed the dusty, dirty feet of his friends in an upper room long ago.

Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples, Tintoretto, c. 1547

13 thoughts on “Unless I Wash You”

  1. Oh, I’m sorry a snow storm kept you and everyone else home. I’m sorry they had to miss hearing this meditation and you had to miss preaching it…and washing feet…and being washed…
    What crasy weather…all I can say is the sun was shining here today, it’s cold, but sunny. I hope that bodes well for what ever services you have on Friday and Saturday…and of course Sunday.

  2. Lovely, thank you so much for posting it.
    I sang at Tenebrae last night. I’d never gone to one before I joined my current church, and now it’s one of my favorite services of the year.

  3. Very nice, Songbird.
    I remember the first Maundy Thursday in an age where I didn’t go to church–Rachel was a toddler and Matt really sick, and Catholic churches don’t have nurseries. So I was walking around the lakes at ND pushing her stroller and listening to the bells of the Basilica ring for the start of the service. And remembering the year before, when she did the whole Triduum with me at age 6 weeks. And it was happy and cool in its own way, and freeing for a girl who hit the church every time the doors swung open…

  4. I got here by google. I was looking for information on footwashing because we had that service at my church on Maundy Thursday. It was not the first time, but for some reason, it gets more and more meaningful to me every year. It involves humility in the person washing the feet and in the person whose feet are being washed.
    I really like it that we all participate. Even the children get to participate. A little boy washed my feet this time, and I in turn washed of a young woman that I am just getting to know. She is a new member.

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