Pastor Scott Hannon
St. John Lutheran Church, Amherst, NY
The last time I washed someone’s feet was Maundy Thursday in 2009. I was serving as the vicar of a church in South Carolina and the congregation had the tradition of foot washing on this Holy Thursday. Rather than washing everyone’s feet, this church selected a few individuals to represent the community as a whole. The person whose feet I was assigned was a middle-aged man (whom we will call “John”). John was a powerful attorney in the community and widely respected in the congregation.
As I knelt down to wash John’s feet his discomfort was palpable. He refused to look at me. His brow was furrowed. His lips pursed. His shoulders were tense. His hands were shaking. I poured water over each of his feet and went to pour some more when he whispered through a clenched jaw, “That’s enough. Stop it.” (Actually, what he really said was far more colorful and the most vulgar thing I’ve ever heard in public worship.) John had had enough. He dried his own feet off, grabbed his shoes, and headed for the door.
Prior to that point in my life foot washing seemed like a harmless action. At the seminary we were taught that foot washing was beautiful and benign. We were told that Jesus did it for his disciples and that we should do it for each other. It seemed simple and straightforward. I now know, however, how intimate and embarrassing foot washing can be.
See, feet stink. They really do. They smell. They are calloused and worn. They bear the scars and impressions of years of travel and toil. They sweat in shoes and get filthy when we wear sandals. Feet are messy and get dirty. It can be awkward having a pastor wash your feet while a room full of people stare.
In general, we don’t show our mess and dirt to the world. We go to great lengths to cover it up. We find matching socks and polished shoes prior to engaging with others. We display our togetherness and neatness, rather than our stinky feet. We all know what’s under our neighbors’ shoes and that’s why we prefer they keep them on.
Which makes it all the more astonishing that on the night of his betrayal our Lord Jesus got up from the table, tied a towel around himself, and got on bended knee to wash his disciples’ feet. His disciple Peter can’t believe it. Like John from South Carolina the whole thing makes him a little uncomfortable. “You’re going to wash my feet?!” Peter exclaims with incredulity. He resists; Jesus insists.
Jesus knows how messy we are. Jesus knows the mess we try to hide. Jesus sees the dirt under the surface. And he responds not with condemnation or rebuke, but with towel and basin. And he bids us to do the same.
As we gather for worship we bring the best of ourselves, yes, but we also bring in our dirt – our sin. It is precisely because we carry that dirt (sin) that the act of worship is necessary. If we were as perfect as we so often pretend we might as well skip worship altogether. As it is, however, we are in need of a good foot washing (as uncomfortable and embarrassing as that might be).
In the waters of baptism stinky feet are made clean. Dirty disciples are called saints. And those who resist Jesus’ radical love and sacrifice find a God who insists on saving his people. The next time you take your shoes off, remember: Jesus died for that person’s feet.
In the Way,