There’s a tradition in some parts of the Christian church where, on Maundy Thursday, priests and bishops---even the pope---they take their stoles and return them to what’s called the deacon’s tie for the foot washing portion of the service. The reason is that before priests and bishops are ordained priests and bishops, they are first ordained deacons, first ordained to Christ’s servant ministry. So tying our stoles in the deacon’s way, this is a symbol of Jesus tying the towel around him as he knelt down to wash his disciples’ feet, a reminder to all who follow Jesus that above all else, Jesus’ ministry is one of service.
If you have an opportunity this evening or sometime this week, I wonder if there’s a way for you to participate in some sort of symbolic foot washing ritual from home. Maybe there are some people in your bubble and you can take turns washing each other’s feet. Perhaps footwashing is already part of your routine as a caregiver and maybe as you reach for that towel across your shoulder, maybe this week that will be for you a reminder of Jesus’ servant ministry. Or perhaps each of us can take a moment to care for our own feet this week, this often neglected part of our body.
For this evening’s sermon, I want to spend some time with the foot washing passage from John’s gospel. But before we do, listen to how theologian Miriam Spies talks about these stories that we tell every year during Holy Week.
“I love Holy Week” she writes.
I love the intentionality of the actions, the way we are invited to live in crip time, time that bends to meet the needs of bodies and minds, particularly the body and mind of Jesus. The speed slows us down and beckons us to dwell in the moments. The speed of a donkey wandering through the crowds, of Love being poured out on Jesus’ feet in perfume and hair, of bread broken, wine poured, gifts shared around a table, of Jesus bending to wash and dry his beloved disciples’ feet, of a lingering kiss on the cheek, of prayer in the garden, of Love proclaiming forgiveness, of Christ being crucified, of Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. The speed of waiting, waiting, waiting. This Holy Week invites us to dwell, to slow to the speed of Jesus’ particular body and mind, to stay with him on this pilgrimage.
This evening let us slow to the “speed of waiting.” Let us linger for a moment in this scene where Jesus bends down to wash and dry his disciples’ feet.
The first word that comes to mind when I hear this story is incredulous. It’s nighttime. The sun has set; the air, cooled. There’s a gentle breeze coming in through the windows, into the room where Jesus and his friends have gathered. And, we can imagine how Jesus’ friends have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure Jesus sits at the head of the table. We can picture them saying how he never wants to sit there, but what if they’re all sitting down when he arrives and that’s the only seat left open and then he has to sit there?
Jesus arrives and now, seated at the table, they share a meal together. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we’re told that what happens next is that Jesus breaks bread and pours wine and those famous words which we hear during the celebration of the Eucharist are spoken: “Take, eat; this is my body. . . . “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. “Drink from it, all of you.”
But in the gospel of John, which we heard tonight, it’s not wine into a glass but water into a basin that’s poured, and it’s not bread that is shared but a ritual of footwashing. Hm.
We celebrate both rituals on Maundy Thursday, the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist. Some say the two ceremonies are juxtaposed, set side by side: the breaking of bread and the pouring of the wine the reminder that Jesus will offer his very own body in service to the world and the footwashing, a practical demonstration of how those who follow after him can offer themselves in service to the world. Some go so far as to say that foot washing is, or at least should be considered, a sacrament alongside the Eucharist. Hm.
So they’re they are, in the middle of supper, and Jesus gets up, takes off his outer robe---ties a towel around him. Then he takes one of the pitchers from the table and pours water into a basin. And one by one he comes to each of the disciples and washes their feet. In the middle of dinner. Andrew and Philip, Mary---who once sat at Jesus’ feet and now here he is sitting at hers. All of the disciples, they’re mid-bite and Jesus is on the floor, asking to wash their feet. On the floor, where the dogs go.
You remember this conversation about the dogs that eat the crumbs from their master’s table? It’s one of the stories in scripture where we see that very human side of Jesus and we learn he has this unconscious bias. There’s a Syrophenician woman, a woman who’s not from Jesus’ hometown, who comes to him with a simple request: to be included in Jesus’ healing ministry. And Jesus says, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”. And she snaps back, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs from under their master’s table.” And Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith; it shall be done for you as you desire.”
So maybe we can imagine what it might’ve been like for Jesus to have had this conversation with the Syrophenician woman and now to be sharing a meal with these people who call him Lord and Master, and to have crawled onto the floor, where the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table, in order to wash his disciples’ feet. This is a really profound transition.
By the time Jesus comes to Simon Peter, it’s just too much for Peter. And he says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”.
And Jesus answers, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’”
And then he puts on his robe, returns to the table and says, “...[I]f I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
So why foot washing? Why is this the example Jesus sets for his disciples before he turns his face towards Jerusalem? Why not one more grand miracle, feed another 5000, raise another person from the dead? Jesus washing the disciples’ feet has always reminded me of a sculptor or a potter, preparing to mold their clay. Leslie Buerschaper, whose sculpture is currently sitting in one of the Park Room windows downstairs, she says that when she sculpts she “often starts in clay and then casts in concrete or resin.” And that’s exactly how I see Jesus in this foot washing scene: like a sculptor starting in clay, Jesus washes the disciples feet so that, in time, by doing for one another and for the world what has been done for them, a life of service might be cast in their hearts.
Foot washing is the act of service we remember this night, what will be the life of service you offer tomorrow?