In recent years, some TV quiz or game shows have requested audience participation to see what their reaction or opinion is on a certain topic or theme. I wish today I could discover what your experiences have been and what many of you think about “foot-washing”. No, not the foot washing that is part of your daily routine of personal hygiene, but the Biblical command to ‘wash one another’s feet,’ that Jesus gives and demonstrates to his disciples in John 13. Since I am not aware that there is some new technology that has been added to our sanctuary pews by which you could buzz in an answer, I will do it my way and take a ‘straw poll’ of sorts. Let me ask a few questions and if you are willing, raise your hand to answer, as appropriate.
1.) If you were raised in a family that attended church on a regular basis, did your congregation observe the practice of ‘foot-washing’?
2.) If you raised your hand, affirming that it was practiced, did you and your parents participate?
3.) How many of you never participated in foot washing?
When I came to Park View MC 13 years ago, we observed the practice of footwashing on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. We gathered in the fellowship hall for a simple supper, followed by a short service around tables that concluded with footwashing. Over the years, attendance and interest dwindled. We eventually dropped that service, added a Friday evening tenebrae service and encouraged small groups or Sunday School classes to plan something for Maundy Thursday that might include footwashing or another ritual that symbolized the idea of humility and servanthood. Some groups have done that. In essence, we dropped the practice of footwashing as a communal experience and encouraged small groups to share together in that way. Has it worked? Are you relieved that we no longer observe that as part of a larger service as a congregation? I won’t ask you to raise your hand on that. If your response in your head and heart is, “Yes, I am relieved we are not doing that anymore?”, why are you relieved?
Is it a practice that was for then, not now in our culture and time? Are we relieved because the idea of touching another’s feet or having someone else touch our feet makes us uncomfortable? Are we embarrassed that our feet aren’t perfect, that we might have callouses, bunions and curled up toes, or that we might have foot odor, untrimmed nails? Maybe you feel anxiety because no one ever explained how this works and how you decide whose feet you wash. Or maybe you fear you would have to wash feet with someone you really don’t like very well or with someone whose opinions and beliefs are so different from yours that you have a difficult time even conversing with them, and now you are supposed to be vulnerable and wash feet together? If some of these ideas have crossed your mind and you are honestly relieved that we have pretty much dropped it as part of the larger communal practice, let me pose this question. “What have we lost by dropping this ritual? What might we be missing? Are we substituting other rituals and acts that replace foot-washing, that carry similar meaning for us?
Let’s take a closer look at the text. John is the only gospel that contains this narrative of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It is the beginning of what we refer to as Jesus’ Farewell Discourses. v. 1a, “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” He is doing what he needs to do to prepare his disciples for his departure. It is a difficult time. His actions are deliberate, intentional and instructive. He loved this band of men that surrounded him these years of his ministry, he loved them to the end!(to the utmost.)
In the middle of the meal, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin and washes and dries the feet of each disciple, one by one. It includes Judas, the one who would betray him,. It includes Peter, the one who would later deny him..
As Peter observed what Jesus was doing with his colleagues, maybe he literally got ‘cold feet’ for he blurted out, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” or maybe it was, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” The unattractive part of our body...dirty, dusty feet!
Jesus tried to explain that even though he might not understand now what this means, later he would. But Peter, doesn’t want any part of this. “No, you shall never wash my feet.” Peter is resisting Jesus’ act of love. Was he confused or maybe felt strongly that this was socially inappropriate, absurd for someone like Jesus to undertake this task like a common slave. The gospel account does not give us clarity about Peter’s reason for resisting, but Jesus soon sets him straight with a demand, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” To share in Jesus involves being served by him. Jesus’ disciples must be washed by him!
Now Peter ‘gets it’ or thinks he does. “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Jesus responds by basically saying, that’s not necessary, only your feet, Peter, only your feet.
When Jesus finishes this incredible act of love with his disciples that shows humility and servanthood, he puts on his outer clothing again and returns to his place. Then turning to them, he says what any good teacher would do, after giving them an example, demonstrating this act to them in a visual way, in a way using the senses, (water poured into basin, water flowing over feet, rough towel rubbed on feet). He says, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” Do you get it?
Read vs.13-17, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater that the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
I ask us, “do we know what Jesus has done for us in this act?” Do we really understand?
In our Mennonite Confession of Faith, adopted in 1995, article 13 is on “Foot Washing.” The opening few lines state:
“We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to serve one another in love as he did. Rather than seeking to lord it over others, we are called to follow the example of our Lord, who chose the role of servant by washing his disciples’ feet.”
In this act, Jesus showed humility and servanthood. The article doesn’t say we must wash each other’s feet, but it does state we are called to serve one another in love and Jesus showed by this example what that looks like. The Luke 22:27 passage records these words of Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves!
In a later paragraph in article 13, it states:
“Believers who wash each other’s feet show that they share in the body of Christ. They thus acknowledge their frequent need of cleansing, renew their willingness to let go of pride and worldly power, and offer their lives in humble service and sacrificial love.”
As I reflect on this statement, I believe that we are better at practicing the 3rd part of that statement, and not as good at the other two. As Mennonites we are strong supporters of service and mission projects and agencies. We purchase supplies for 1600 school kits and assemble them in an hour. We send teams to Kenya to help build sand dams or New Orleans to rebuild a church. Our youth go on mission trips and help with service projects in Georgia and Chicago. We raise thousands of dollars for MCC to help with worthy causes around the globe. We give money and time and resources in service and in love, “ in the name of Christ.” Do we do it humbly? What have we sacrificed? What is the cost?
What acts or rituals do we do that help us with the first two parts of that statement from our confession. How or when do we acknowledge our need of cleansing, our need to wash away and clear out of our lives that which keeps us from a servant’s stance, things that block our way? What reminds us of our need to let go of pride and the desire to be the best, first, most accomplished? Can we let go of the need to be right! Can we practice humility and put others above ourselves?
As we reflect on this text from John 13, maybe we need to revisit the practice of washing one another’s feet. What, exactly, is Jesus calling his followers to do? In kneeling before one another, we show our readiness to serve sister, brother, neighbor, friend, even enemy. Jesus teaches us to let our feet be washed! As we allow another to wash our feet, we open ourselves to many possibilities for cleansing and renewal. As we wash feet with one another, we are exposing not only our imperfect bare feet, but also baring our souls and being vulnerable. Maybe part of this practice is showing the courage to ‘offer up our discomfort’ at baring our feet and touching and being touched in that way. As we display an attitude of humble service and selfless love, personally and in the life of our congregation, we are being a witness to the community and the world around us of the Jesus way. We are to share the kind of love that startles, surprises and maybe even shows up in unexpected ways and places! Together we can model a life where we treat one another with love even if it is difficult, or if we cannot see the outcome, or even if doing so does not entirely make sense!
About 20 years ago, I washed feet with an 80 year old woman at the church in Ohio where John and I worked as pastors. It was a deeply moving experience for me. Sadie was quite conservative in dress, slow and methodical in her movement. She taught me something about this practice that left an impression. She approached footwashing with reverence. I was concerned about her ability to get up and down from the hard floor, but she did it. She slowly and deliberatively took her nylon stockings off, one at a time. When I knelt down, I noticed her imperfect feet, calloused, rough, curled under toes. They told me a story of a hard life, of feet shoved into shoes that fit improperly. She obviously walked a few miles in her day. This humble servant washed my feet and it was holy space and a holy time.
For me, footwashing has been a significant and meaningful practice of the church. I leave you with this question: “How important is it for you?
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