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