John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 6, 2023
Some people are
weird about feet. I have never been one
of those people. I can’t say that I get
excited about foot washing, but it also doesn’t unnerve me as it does some
people. However, there have been a few times in my life when the experience of
having someone wash my feet was almost painful. Last year when I was in the
hospital, I never got a shower. Because of the nature of the wound, they could
not risk it. I couldn’t put on the
stupid hospital socks because I could not reach my feet, which meant I was
walking barefoot. I was absolutely disgusting.
One night when I was complaining about my feet in particular, my husband
offered to wash my feet. I said yes, but found myself overwhelmed and
embarrassed by the experience (even though it was my husband of 17 years). I felt conflicted in that I wanted clean
feet, but allowing even my husband to touch my infected and gross feet was
almost more than I could bear. I wept as
he washed my feet, and had to assure him that he wasn’t hurting me, these were
different kinds of tears.
It wasn’t until that moment, that I fully
appreciated the way that Peter must have felt when Jesus bent down before him
with a basin of water and a towel. I am not saying I had the same emotions, but
the intensity was similar. In those days
people wore sandals and the roads were not paved. That meant that people often had dirty
feet. It was customary to have them
washed before a meal or upon entering a home.
Typically the person who did the washing was a servant. If there wasn’t
a servant, it was the woman of the house.
There were all
kinds of reasons why this action of Jesus should have confused and disturbed
Peter. His feet were actually dirty, a
lot more dirty than his hands and his head (which he suggested Jesus
wash). And even if they were clean, it
was still inappropriate for a man, any man to be doing this. Then when you add
the fact that that wasn’t just any man, this was the Son of Man, the Messiah—well
then things got really weird. So Peter
wasn’t too excited about what was about to be happen.
His reluctance is
understandable, but the intensity of Peter’s reaction indicated something more
than just discomfort. It was fear. What was the source of the fear? There are a
lot of theories, as there often are. Some
think that Peter didn’t want Jesus to see that dirty, gross part of him.
Perhaps it wasn’t just the physical dirt, but also weakness. Only a few verses
later Jesus revealed that Peter would deny him.
I don’t think Peter knew that would happen, but perhaps, deep down, he
knew he was capable of that. And should
he, a weak man, let an all-powerful God wash his feet? Peter was afraid that
Jesus would see this weakness, which of course he did.
He didn’t need to
be close enough to wash his feet to see the weakness. He had always known. But he loved him anyways. His love and his display of that love gave
Peter strength—gave him enough strength to allow himself to be washed. Later
that strength would fail him, but it would return after the resurrection. Most of our weaknesses and sins are
temporary. We always have opportunities
to redeem ourselves.
The other thing
that Peter feared was what this meant for Jesus. This wasn’t merely an act of humility on
Jesus’ part, this was an act of humiliation.
Between this action and all the comments Jesus had made about his
impending death, Peter was afraid that this Jesus who seemed divine and
otherworldly, might just die in one of the most humiliating ways possible. But despite all those fears and questions
that were rolling around in his brain and making it difficult for Peter to let
his guard down and receive this gift of love—despite all of that, Peter allowed
Jesus to humiliate himself in front of him. He allowed Jesus to see the
ugliness of his feet, the weakness of his faith.
In the Episcopal
Church, we emphasize the importance of the last supper and communion. Every Sunday we say these words that come
from our reading in 1st Corinthians and from Matthew, Mark and Luke:
“Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do
this for the remembrance of me.” And “Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed
for you and for many for the forgiveness
of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this
for the remembrance of me.” Yet on
the night we focus on the story of the Last Supper, we read from the Gospel of
John, which doesn’t include these words.
In John, Jesus never presents bread and wine as his body and blood. Instead, John tells the story of Jesus
washing the feet of the disciples. Jesus
then tells them that he has set an example in the washing of the feet and they
should do likewise. Yet we only do it
once a year and many churches never do it.
did some research and tried to figure out why this was and I could not find
anything except from a few people who said that we really didn’t need to wash
feet anymore since we wear shoes and bathe regularly. But I think what it really comes down to is
that it’s too intimate. It requires too
much humility and humiliation. When I
was in the hospital, I actually needed my feet washed, but that made it that
much worse. It’s so hard to let someone see a part of you that you are not
comfortable with. Yet in the end, it was probably one of the most beautiful
moments I’ve had with my husband. Of all
the amazing things people did for me when I was ill, that was when I felt most
loved and it actually hurt a little, to receive love when I felt weak and
told his disciples that everyone would know they were his disciples by how they
loved one another. I think the part of
love we can often overlook is how we receive the love of others and of God. It can be challenging to receive love because
it makes us so incredibly vulnerable and no matter how much we talk about it,
we still don’t like to be vulnerable. The
beautiful thing about the practice of washing feet is that it forces us to be
vulnerable, which is why I encourage you to try it. I know that many of you won’t. That’s ok.
It might be too far out of your comfort zone. If you don’t, I want you to think about ways
you can receive God’s love and the love of others. Consider what might be stopping you from
opening yourself to that love and acceptance. Pray about it and then find some
small way you can move out of your comfort zone, because in a way, that is what
our faith does. It’s constantly pushing
us beyond what we are comfortable with.
That’s what Jesus did for his disciples and that is what he continues to
try to do for us.