|Today’s scripture readings:
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
|Sermon audio unavailable|
About six years ago I started experiencing excruciating pain in my right foot, and after receiving multiple misdiagnoses and undergoing a couple years of failed treatments, I finally discovered I had a benign tumor about the size of a marble on one of the nerves in my foot. I was so relieved the day I went in for surgery and woke up without any pain in that foot for the first time in nearly two years. But the surgery did leave me with a bit of nerve damage and I was sent to physical therapy.
I’ll never forget the first meeting with my physical therapist, who became for me a healer, counselor, and spiritual guide, all in one. I remember at my first appointment she had me take off my shoes and socks, and she held my foot in her hands. She gently massaged it and rubbed her finger over the four-inch-long incision from the surgery, remarking how well it had healed. I couldn’t believe it. Weeks after the surgery, I didn’t even have the stomach to touch that incision—and it was my foot. Just looking at it grossed me out. And here this stranger was holding my foot in her hand, soothing this still-healing wound with her touch. I felt vulnerable taking off my sock and revealing the fresh scar from surgery. I’d much rather have kept that to myself. It’s an ugly scar and it reminds me of a miserable time in my life. But her care was disarming. It was clear she had seen a lot of these kinds of scars and somehow she didn’t find them repulsive. She was able to see through what I found gross and embarrassing and extend the grace of a gentle touch.
Among the dirtiest jobs in ancient Palestinian households was washing feet. Nearly everyone traveled in bare feet or sandals, which meant feet got really dirty. Mud, dust, and dung on the paths of ancient Israel would get between people’s toes and cake on their heels. The duty to clean off this smelly mess fell to the lowest members of the household: slaves, servants, or children. Men rarely washed the feet of others. It was a privilege to rise above such a disgusting job, to be able to assign that task to someone else.
So can you imagine how it must have felt for the disciples, with Jesus bowed before them, cradling their feet? As he dipped their sweaty feet in water and set about washing them, working his fingers between their toes to clean out the dust from the road, running his hands on the soles of their feet, removing mud and feeling their callouses? Jesus was their rabbi, their teacher. He was their leader. He was their Messiah. They must have felt shame and embarrassment. Seeing Jesus kneeling at his own dirty feet, Peter protests: Not you, Lord! Don’t do that! You’re too good. You’re above that.
But here’s what I’ve been wondering: Why did Peter really protest Jesus’ washing his feet? Was it because Peter thought this action was beneath Jesus? Was it that he didn’t think Jesus should be bothered with a task that belonged to a slave? Or did Peter protest because he didn’t want Jesus to see how grimy and disgusting he was? Was he trying to protect Jesus, or was he trying to protect himself? My money is on the latter. I suspect Peter was ashamed to have his filthy, stinky feet exposed to one he respected so deeply. I suspect Peter wanted desperately to hide the ugly parts of himself and allow Jesus to see only the stuff he was proud of.
Isn’t that true of all of us, that we do our best to hide our dirt? That we cultivate a public image that communicates we’re doing just fine so nobody we respect ever sees the embarrassing stuff—the filth and the grime, the warts and the sores, the bruises and the scars?
Walk into this church on a typical Sunday morning and you see a lot of people who pretty much look like they’ve got it together. People wearing their Sunday best outfits, exchanging smiles and handshakes and polite “Peace be with you!”s, asking, “How are you?” and hearing, “I’m fine.” And most of us don’t know any better and assume everyone else here really does have it together, as though we are the only ones whose lives are a mess. Every once in awhile we get a glimpse of reality when someone who is sick or grieving is bold enough to have their name added to our congregational prayer list. But few of us know what challenges are really facing the people sitting beside us in the pews. And few of us want others to know about the challenges we are facing, either.
In that way, we’re not so different from Peter. “You will never wash my feet, Lord!” That’s Peter’s attempt to keep his messiness concealed, to keep Jesus at a distance, to prevent Jesus from seeing the truth about his life. He would really prefer not to show his dirty feet to anyone, much less Jesus. But Jesus insists: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” He won’t let Peter be anything other than exactly who he is, in all his beautiful, broken, grubby humanity. On this last night with his disciples, Jesus wants them to know he loves them just as they are, dirty feet and all. That’s the love Jesus extends to us, too. And it’s the love Jesus commands us to extend to one another.
On Maundy Thursday we focus on this commandment Jesus gives his disciples, to love one another as he has loved them. But I would guess that, for most of us, it’s easier to extend extravagant love to others than it is to receive it ourselves. That it’s easier to love another person in all their messiness and despair than it is to put our own brokenness on display and allow ourselves to be loved nonetheless. That it’s easier to scrub the dirt off someone else’s feet than it is to expose the filthy, stinky grime caked onto our own soles.
In a moment we’ll invite you to come forward and take part in the washing of feet. As you come forward, you’ll first have your own feet washed, and then you will wash the feet of the person who comes after. We will guide you through it.
Usually the Maundy Thursday footwashing makes us all a little uncomfortable. It’s probably not so much the prospect of touching another’s feet but the fear of uncovering our own that makes us squirm. When I was growing up, the Maundy Thursday footwashing involved the pastor and a handful of worship assistants whose feet were ceremoniously washed up front by the altar. It was all completely staged, a mere symbolic reenactment. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he gathered with his friends and gave this commandment, that they bare their soles to one another and allow themselves to be known and loved. So maybe it will make you squirm, but come anyway. Come allow yourself to be known and loved.
Melinda Quivik, “Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1988.