What do you do while you’re washing your hands?
We’ve been prompted and prodded continuously about the importance of it. Some sing “Happy Birthday.” Others count to 20 (and find that 20 seconds is much longer than one might think!). Saying the alphabet is another clever trick. Whatever you are doing, keep doing it! Until the cloud of this pandemic lifts, we need to diligently practice the necessary art of washing our hands.
There’s another washing that doesn’t get much press. But we think of it today because today is Maundy Thursday. Foot washing. And not washing your own feet – important enough – but washing the feet of others. It’s an art not many of us jump at the opportunity to practice. But we’ve been told to. Funny how we let this one of Jesus’ commandments slip, isn’t it? There’s not even any wiggle room for creative interpretation: Jesus says “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet.” (John 13:14). Maybe it helps a little bit that Jesus doesn’t tell us to wash the world’s feet, but each others’. Maybe it doesn’t. Feet are still feet.
Think of all they do for you. All the places they carry you. How they help you (when they are functioning well anyway). As sandal season is approaching many start to take their feet more seriously. Are they calloused? Has gunk built up between the toes? And what about the heels – flaky with dead skin? Pretty graphic, I know, but feet are feet. And probably not a source of pride because of their beauty. And how much more so in Jesus’ day! Most people walked most places. And not on smooth surfaces. And certainly not wearing steel-toed boots.
But Jesus washed his disciples feet and said we should do the same for each other. We’re off the hook this year because we can’t gather for worship together. But do we regularly practice this beautiful gesture of servitude? That’s the point. To serve each other. Humbly. Without grumbling. Washing feet. Are we up for that? Maybe down with it would be better stated!
Washing is not only necessary. It’s also symbolic. Of course with Jesus it’s all of the above. But primarily symbolic. Not only clean but cleansed. Not only feet but the whole person to whom they are attached. And hugely menial. He is, after all, the quintessential servant. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, he is
someone who will keep disappearing into the crowd of hungry people who follow him around. He loves nothing better than touching them, feeding them, talking with them… This is his way of life. It is a life lived with and for others, although often without reward; a life of meaning and purpose, although often obscured; a life of long days and short nights on the move with no travel allowance, no first-class accommodations or executive privilege – in short, a life of sacrifice but a life worth living beyond a shadow of a doubt, a life with so much life in it that death cannot touch it, not even with a cross.”
As we persevere in this pandemic, washing and washing and washing some more, perhaps we may consider not only its necessity but also its significance. And maybe reciting John 3:16 thoughtfully while scrubbing will keep us focused on Jesus and the meaning of his life and death.