My senses stood on edge at the first foot-washing I experienced in a church (St. Paul’s, Fayetteville). I had never done it before but trusted the clergy in their invitation to the holy days leading up to Easter, to participate fully in all that was offered. I looked around at others who seemed so calm, as if what we were about to do was normal. In the church, Baptism and Eucharist are normal; even in the church of my youth I had at least had one Communion. Jesus told us that we were to be baptized as he had been and that we were to take the bread and cup in remembrance of him; this is standard issue. So what do we make of this where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus plainly says, “I have set an example, that you should do as I have done to you”? What Jesus has obviously done is kneel before his disciples and wash their feet in an overwhelming act of love.
On Sunday I encouraged us all to pay attention to Jesus’ acts of love throughout Holy Week, and in his act of washing his disciples’ feet, we witness a great and powerful act of love. In this act of love, Jesus says many things, verbally and non-verbally. What Jesus knows is that the time is coming for him to die, and he is resolved to love his friends and followers through to the end. How is he able to do this? He has the assurance of his place in God, his confidence that he not only comes from God but is going to God; he is not bound by this world. With this assurance, he gets up and washes the feet of those gathered with him, even arguing with Peter, telling them that he knows they can’t fully understand this now, but they will, later. Later they will understand the paradox of their Teacher and Lord serving them and the significance of the servant not being greater than the master, nor the messengers greater than the one who sends them.
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples wasn’t just about role-reversals on that one night long ago. In one exemplary act, Jesus encourages a letting-go of expectation, puts those who think we understand in the uncomfortable position of not knowing and in a position of vulnerability. If letting go of a sense of order and control wasn’t uncomfortable enough, giving your feet over to the one whom you regard as your Teacher and Lord certainly is. Jesus, in his tenderness and love and assurance in God, created a safe space that night to plant a seed for new understanding. In a place of safety and security grounded in God’s love, Jesus offered a moment of transformation, illustrated in Peter’s move from not wanting Jesus to wash his feet to wanting to be washed head to toe in the waters his Lord offered. Like Peter, we still have much to learn, much to understand.
Accepting our own lack of understanding of all that Jesus stands for and all that he offered and showed to us, letting go of a sense of control and of vice-grips on what we deem acceptable, let alone taking off our socks and shoes to let an acquaintance pour water over our feet at the end of the day, all of this puts us in a position of vulnerability, and our culture equates vulnerability with weakness. Our culture equates love with weakness. But we know that being vulnerable means being open. Being vulnerable means we have the opportunity to take a risk, to be brave, to be courageous. We know that being vulnerable means that we have the capacity to be in relationship with another, which means that only by being vulnerable can we experience and understand true love. And we know that true love is powerful.
The bonds of love defy reason and even time and space, which may be why Jesus wants us to do this, too, this act of love. I wash your feet. You wash mine. We share this act of love in the name of Jesus, for love of God, and we live our lives together in assurance that whatever may come, we are God’s, we are beloved. Though we may be afraid, we have nothing to fear. For Christians, this act of love is normal. We practice showing our love for one another in the church so that outside these walls we remember that we are God’s servants and messengers on the same level with all other children of God, many of whom have forgotten what it is to love and be loved. As important as it is that we be baptized and share in Holy Communion, it is equally and especially important that we show genuine love for one another as often as we can.