It is an uncomfortable thing to get down on your knees and wash somebody’s feet.
First of all, there’s the posture. You’re down on your hands and knees. You’re lower than the person whose feet you are washing. Your knees may creak a bit, and it may be hard on your back.
Then there’s the whole “feet” thing…touching other peoples’ feet feels too intimate. My daughter won’t get a pedicure because she feels shy about someone else handling her feet. Some folks are afraid to touch someone else’s feet because they are afraid the person may have some sort of foot fungus that they will catch, or that they will face someone with particularly unattractive feet.
In the ancient world, feet WERE thought of as a particularly intimate and private part of the body. “Uncovering his feet” was a euphemism for uncovering someone’s private parts. Even today, in the Middle East, showing someone the sole of your foot is a terrible insult. When that Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at former President Bush, it was a multi-leveled insult. Feet are not something to be shared with others.
So when Jesus prepared to wash the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, it was a crazy thing for Jesus to do. Peter was shocked; the teacher does not do this…it is the work of a slave. But Jesus was teaching once again in a way that turned the world upside down. The first will be last, the little ones are the ones with proper faith, the rich should divest themselves of all and become poor. And the teacher gets down on his knees and washes the feet of those whom he teaches.
It was an unsettling message then, and it is an unsettling one today. We’re perfectly happy to write a check…well, not always perfectly happy, but generally willing, at least in principle…and we’re perfectly happy to make a sandwich or bring a box of cereal to go over to the Interfaith Food Bank, but the whole footwashing thing feels a bit too much.
If we are gathering together as a loving community, about to celebrate a meal that reminds us of the One who celebrated the first meal of this kind, serving each other in some way seems right. If the ceremony we were about to do consisted of washing each others’ hands in a bowl of warm water, we probably wouldn’t shrink at it.
But feet. Feet feels like Jesus is asking too much of us. It’s that posture. It’s the sore back we’ll have tomorrow. It’s crouching on the ground. And yes, it’s feet. Tired, slightly smelly, beat-up looking feet.
And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t do the easy thing, directing his disciples to do this footwashing, or deciding that washing their hands is enough of a symbol. No, he wraps a towel around his middle, gets down on his knees, and he washes those dusty feet that walked with him on the road to Jerusalem, to this place and this meal. He shows a kind of extreme humility that is second only to what is to come.
Washing feet, you see, is nothing compared to the radical subservience he will demonstrate on Friday, when he gives up not just his dignity, but his human life, to save us all. Getting down on his knees to wash the disciples’ feet will be followed by getting down on his knees to pray that the cup pass away, and it will be followed by getting down on his knees as he is flogged, and it will be followed by his body being tortured and hung up to die on the cross…for no other purpose than to save us. He makes himself a servant. He gets down on his knees and washes their feet. Then he gets up on the cross and dies for their sins, and our sins, too.
So in a few minutes, when we wash each others’ feet, I hope you do feel the ache in your knees and back. I hope you feel the little bit of unease at washing the feet of another St Gabrielite. I hope when you do, you also feel a little bit of the love that Jesus felt toward his disciples, and toward us, that he would assume this position and do this thing. I hope you direct that same feeling of love toward the person whose feet you are washing. If you do, you will start to understand the magnitude of what he does, wrapping a towel around his middle or accepting the judgment that he must die. That is the love we remember this night. That is the love we share with each other in this simple act of washing each others’ feet. And that is the love that Jesus hoped we would learn from his life and death.