On the night before his crucifixion, on what we now call Maundy Thursday, Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them dry with the towel he’d wrapped around his waist, Jn.13:1-5.
In the chapter before, we read that 6 days before Jesus’ last Passover Meal, he entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters had invited Jesus to dinner at their home and Martha was doing her serving bit. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with the apostles, when Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oil called nard, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. We’re told the fragrance of the perfume filled the house. This was extravagant, lavish devotion on Mary’s part, but it was also unusual, both because she poured the oil on Jesus’ feet, as normally oil was poured on the head, and because she used her hair to wipe them, when any respectable woman would never unbind her hair in public. Further, it was an act of great humility, for it was a servant’s work to attend to the feet.
Do you remember when John the Baptist, was baptising in the River Jordan to prepare people for the coming Messiah “the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”? Disciples would perform all sorts of services for their rabbis/teachers, but undoing sandals was expressly excluded – that was a menial task, fit only for a slave. And yet John felt completely unworthy, totally unfit before the coming Christ to touch his footwear – he felt even lower than a slave.
So what a truly extraordinary thing it was for Jesus to be washing his disciples’ feet – to show them “the full extent of his love” John tells us in his Gospel. I wonder if, knowing that his time now was so very short with these friends he so loved, (and that included Judas who was still there with them), he wanted to perform this last intimate act of service and love for them. He hadn’t yet predicted Peter’s betrayal out loud, although he well knew they would all abandon him and flee from the Garden of Gethsemane, but knowing the shame they would then all feel, perhaps he wanted beforehand to show them how very much he loved them, so that afterwards, they would remember the tenderness and closeness, and forgive themselves?
And so Jesus took upon himself this menial task normally performed by a servant, there being no servant there, and no one else dreaming of volunteering – in fact the disciples were far more likely to be squabbling about which of them was the most important. Jesus’ action was during the meal, not upon arrival, probably done deliberately to emphasise a point, as it was also to be a lesson in humility and self-sacrifice. Verse 14 says “”Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you’re to do.”
Of course, Jesus wants us as Christians to do the most basic and unglamourous acts of love and service for one another, not just foot-washing, but I think the feet issue is a good one, as it seems to bring up strong feelings in most of us. I find the thought of touching smelly, horny feet a complete turn-off, distasteful, and pretty obnoxious, but think of how many of us have changed nappies, cleared up sick, or even had employment cleaning up people’s various body fluids. It seems our stomachs can be turned by unhelpful “Yuck” thoughts, and triggered by all sorts of negative conditionings from the past, the pit, or our culture, and not by compassion for a brother or sister needing our practical love at that moment. And how about our feelings for anyone washing and touching our feet? Are we self-conscious about their appearance, their cleanliness, the intimacy of it all? Do we squirm at the thought of someone serving us in that way? We speak of ‘dying of embarrassment’ – does the idea of someone washing our feet make us feel that much shame?
The day after I returned home from having my back surgery 2 years ago, I remember Chris Sutcliffe visiting and asking if I would like her to wash my feet for me. I think perhaps my fragile state overcame my normal instinctive inhibitions, but I agreed, and it was wonderful! She knelt at my feet with a basin, and washed my tootsies so very gently, not as a nurse, but as someone who wanted to do something loving for me. It made me feel very cherished and cared for and safe, and I loved it – and I think so did she. Sometimes, it’s easier to do things for others, than allow them to do things for us isn’t it? So what if we grit our teeth and allow someone to perform an act of love for us, should they perhaps offer, instead of an immediate ”No, I’m fine thanks”? Or even perhaps ask for something to be done? Might we not experience something new and special?
Dare I say “To the basins, brothers and sisters!”?