+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter said to Jesus, “You will never wash my feet. Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.”
Peter isn’t the only one who has reservations about footwashing. Just last week I had lunch with a friend who happens to be a Presbyterian laywoman. She asked me about our Maundy Thursday service, and I explained to her that we would wash feet of any wished, celebrate the eucharist, and strip the altar in preparation for Good Friday. My friend is polite to her very core, but she still wrinkled her nose as she said, “Really? I don’t think we ever do a footwashing service on Maundy Thursday.”
I suspect that a great many of us Episcopalians might share my friend’s feeling about liturgical footwashing. I’d be surprised if anyone among us ever had a hard time finding a seat at such a service. For a people who worship God incarnate in Jesus, we are strangely uncomfortable with contact with the actual flesh of other people. I can remember a time when some folks would remain on their knees just to avoid exchanging the peace. And we’re twenty-first century Americans with on-demand hot running water; we can’t understand why we’d want to go anywhere, much less church, to have our feet washed or to wash the feet of others. We take pride in doing things by ourselves and for ourselves.
In Jesus’ time, though, footwashing was understood as an act of hospitality. Still, the disciples are puzzled by Jesus’ act of washing their feet. Peter especially has a problem with having Jesus wash his feet. To Peter, having Jesus wash the feet of a disciple seems like a violation of the proper relationship between them. As with many other things Jesus has done in his time with the Twelve, Peter just doesn’t get what Jesus is trying to do. At first he refuses Jesus’ offer to wash his feet. When Jesus tells Peter he must wash his feet, Peter wants his head and hands washed as well. Peter is so like the rest of us. When he realizes he’s said the wrong thing, he proceeds to put his foot even further into his mouth.
But I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter. Even in a cultural context where foot-washing was a common practice of hospitality, it would have been downright weird for one’s host to start washing feet in the middle of dinner. We can be pretty sure that it isn’t concern for hygiene or even comfort that’s motivating Jesus. I think we can also be sure it’s not ritual cleanliness that’s on Jesus’ mind. Jesus presents a model of servanthood, to be sure. But the lesson that Jesus teaches by washing the feet of his disciples reaches beyond even servanthood.
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus teaches them what it’s like to be in loving relationship with one another. By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus teaches them about mutuality in love. Jesus turns the whole notion of the master-servant hierarchy upside down. He offers service to the very people who think it’s their job to serve him instead. By performing the service of foot-washing for his disciples, Jesus teaches them how to receive service. By this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples know what doing service looks like. They’ve seen Jesus touch lepers and minister to outcasts. They’ve seen him eat with people whom others consider beyond the pale. Now, as their own feet are washed by Jesus, they learn what it’s like to be the ones who are served, to be the ones who receive service.
The lesson that Jesus teaches in the foot-washing is one that we too would do well to learn. Most of us have internalized the idea that it’s more blessed to give than to receive. I’d venture to guess that most Christians believe that it’s better to serve than be served. Most of us like to think of ourselves as givers and helpers. It certainly is good to give and it’s certainly good to help. But if we are givers and helpers only, and are never receivers, we perpetuate a hierarchy in which some people are defined as being better than others. If we refuse what others offer, if we refuse the service of others, we may—without meaning to—deprive someone else of the chance to give and serve.
We may want to keep Jesus’ lesson in mind as we think about our relationships with the poor and homeless in our community. We may want to keep Jesus’ lesson in mind as we think about our relationships with those who are ill or disabled in any way. It is a very good thing indeed that we are eager to serve people who may appear to be more in need of assistance than we ourselves are. But in our enthusiasm for serving others, it may be easy for us to forget what gifts that they have to offer us. Yes, we want to emulate Jesus and be washers of feet. But Jesus, too, had his feet washed with ointment by Mary, who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair. Sometimes it is as blessed to receive as to give. Sometimes it is as blessed to be served as to serve. Mutuality is essential to truly loving relationships, like the one Jesus has with the disciples. Mutuality is essential to truly loving relationships, like the one Jesus has with his Father. “Unless I wash you,” says Jesus, “you have no part in me.” Amen.