Maundy Thursday, Year C
14 April 2022
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Our Gospel reading begins with these words, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.” (13:1-4)
Jesus knew that his hour had come.
Have you ever thought about the things you want to do before you die? A few years ago Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman did so in a movie. Ever since that movie I have noticed people speaking of their “bucket list.” Often these lists are about places we want to travel or things we want to do. And if they were about making peace with enemies or reconciling with family, we may not say so publicly. Yet our lists can be about making peace, about serving those in need, about giving generously. They do not have to be about us.
Be that as it may.
Jesus, while he is engaged in the big project of the world’s salvation, and knowing that this big project will lead to his death, focuses on the small things. He takes off his outer robe and ties a towel around himself and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, even against Peter’s resistance.
Most of us don’t like it when others wash our feet, except for a pedicure that, I am told, is very nice. I imagine that a pedicure is OK because we do not have a relationship with the person giving us the pedicure. We may or may not see them again, and in any case, while it is a somewhat intimate act, we pay for the service which takes away the intimacy.
The first time I participated in the washing of feet I was twenty and it was in a group with other twenty year olds when one of us in leading worship directed us to wash each other’s feet. I have no memory of it, except that I thought it a meaningful for the simple reason that it emulated Jesus. But we were all young and had beautiful feet.
But most of the people I have come across in the years since do not like the washing of feet.
We don’t like the liturgical act of washing each other’s feet because of what I would call the ick factor. This, I think, relates mostly to our own feet. Like Peter we know our feet are not perfect. They may not be dusty, for most of us did not come to church in sandals, but they might be smelly, or we happen to be wearing our “holy” socks because we forgot about this ancient ritual, or we’re flat-footed, our feet are calloused, or we have bunions. And while we ourselves know that we are not perfect, we don’t want others to see our imperfections, at least not people we’ll sit next to in the pew next Sunday or go to lunch with after service.
When we do not want people to know our imperfections we are ashamed of our imperfections, even though we know that shame is not something God calls us to feel, because God is not ashamed to be our God.1
Shame is ruled out. God knows us. God knows we are human, and since God became human in Jesus, there is no need for us to be apologetic for being human. Accepting our humanity will help us now and down the road when we begin to age and may begin to fail.
I think that we also shy away from washing each other’s feet because most of us aren’t touchy-feely. We are people a little reserved and wanting to be in control. At least that’s our culture and it is how we were raised. Our feet have many nerve endings which is why the tickling of feet is part of every childhood. These nerve endings make our feet sensitive and having someone touch our feet becomes an intimate act, almost like all touching, save for the shaking of hands. But we do not wish such intimacy because intimacy implies vulnerability, and vulnerability implies dependence. And we’re just not sure how close we want to be to one another.
How close should the community of the church be? How much of our lives should we share with one another?
It’s often been said that the example that Jesus set us here is one of service to one another. That is probably not wrong, after all the act of footwashing was the act of a servant.
But when Jesus speaks to the disciples about what he has done, he does not say, “Serve one another as I have served you.” Jesus says that in other places2 but not here.
No, Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” And love includes intimacy and vulnerability. Love includes getting our hands dirty.
Think of the beautiful conversation between Golde and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye asked about her love she replies, “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow. …?”
And a little later, “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought him, starved with him. … If that’s not love, what is?”
The love that Jesus has for his disciples is not found in sunsets but in a life that is not afraid to be vulnerable, a life that is not afraid to come close, a life that is not afraid to be known.
It’s pretty normal to feel uncomfortable with footwashing. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it or anything else that brings us closer together. It’s a small thing. We can do small things. Mother Teresa said something about small things.3
3“Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”