On Foot-Washing

John 13:1-7, 31b-35

I would offer two images today. Both have to do with feet.

The first is this:  I bought new shoes not long ago.  It is typical for me to go through a pair of athletic shoes every six months or so, but I thought I could push it out a little further this time as winter’s ice and snow have kept me from walking much in these last months.  So even though I had been wearing them to twice weekly workouts I could not imagine that the support had worn down yet.  However, I sensed it was time to get new shoes when I started developing pain in my left hip and ankle.  I thought to look inside the shoe and I realized that I had worn right through the cushion.  It’s my weaker side, to be sure, and for some reason I must hold myself in such a way that over time it just wears through.

So I went and bought new shoes a few weeks back and within a couple of days I found my pain was gone.  What was happening to my feet was happening to all of me.  My hip was no longer tender.  My ankle was no longer sore.  It makes sense, of course, for my feet hold all of me, and as such seem to have something to do with upholding my health, my well-being, my wholeness.

And the second is this:   I participated in a foot washing service at Confirmation Camp many years ago.  As I remember it, each Care Group (a small group of 7-8 young people and their adult leader) was given a plastic basin full of water. We were to find a quiet place apart and the leader was then to wash the feet of our 13-year-olds.  We did this later in the week, once trust had been built between us.  The fact that it was later in the week also had other, perhaps unforeseen consequences.

For imagine this, if you will.  It was a hot day in July.  Eighth graders had been at camp for several days by now and many of them, I’m quite certain, had not washed their feet or much of anything else in the time since they had left home.  During the day their feet had been trapped inside of athletic shoes and socks and by now it was mid afternoon.

It was certainly a memorable experience, at least for me, and I do have to say, that it would be an understatement to say that it was less than pleasant.  And even though they knew me by then, I can’t imagine it was all that comfortable for those young people either — perhaps, in part, because their feet were so very dirty, but more than that, I expect, because they were, in that moment, so very vulnerable.

So although the dynamics are entirely different, it’s not hard for me to imagine what it must have been that first Maundy Thursday when Jesus knelt before his disciples and washed their feet.  These feet were the feet of grown men — not trapped in shoes, but still dirty and calloused for these were their only means of transportation from one place to another.  Only it wasn’t really the dirt that made this so uncomfortable, so surprising.  It was, of course, the subservient act of a superior washing the feet of an inferior.  Of the master washing the student’s feet.

So it is no wonder that Peter protests. I expect I would have, too, to have my world so turned upside down.  For as I understand it, in Peter’s world even slaves were not required to wash the feet of their masters.  But part of the wonder of this story is that even when Peter gets it, it seems he still doesn’t comprehend it, insisting then that Jesus wash not just his feet, but ‘all of him.’  But, in fact, we’ve come to know, that this marvelous scene we picture again every Holy  Week is, in the end, not really about the physical washing at all.  Not of our actual feet or of all the rest of us either.  It is, rather, a foreshadowing of Jesus setting himself ‘aside’, even as he cast his robes aside — even to death itself for our whole selves.  Foot washing?  It just points us there.

And it couldn’t be better, really, for feet are what carry our entire physical beings. And feet do get dirty, sometimes really dirty.  Jesus in this single, simple, surprising act, speaks to all of this for all of us. And by getting his own hands dirty as he cleans up our ‘feet,’ we are reminded once more of all the gifts God intends for us.

  1. Have you ever participated in a foot-washing? Were you the washer of feet or did you have your feet washed?  What do you remember of the experience?
  2. I’m not certain that ‘foot-washing’ has the same symbolic punch it would have had two thousand years ago.  Can you think of something else which would have the same impact today? What would it be?  Or does ‘foot-washing’ still do it?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this familiar story?  Can you see yourself reacting like Peter did?
  4. In a sentence or two how would you summarize the good news of this story today?  For you?  For your congregation?

2 comments

  1. Benson says:

    Pastor Janet,
    I have had my feet washed on Holy Thursday on a couple of occasions. Although there were a dozen people getting their feet washed by a kneeling priest,it was a humbling and intimate experience. I also remember feeling that thank goodness there are women represented here!
    Thank you for your writings which are a continued blessing.
    Jan

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Thanks, Jan. It sounds like foot washing was a meaningful experience for you. That’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing your experience, for reading, and for your friendship on this journey together.

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