We’ll begin with an exercise. We’re not going to do a foot-washing today – I wouldn’t dare spring it on you out of the blue – but I want you to think for a moment about washing the feet of the people around you. Of you having a bowl of water and kneeling down, rolling your sleeves up, towel thrown over your shoulder. And they –it can be the person on either side, you pick. They take off their shoes, setting them aside. Placing their feet in the water, I bet its cold. No one’s feet are pretty, they all smell a little. Maybe there’s a scar, or a blister, and old wound. And you pour the water over those feet, wiping them down, gently. We’re not talking a scrub down or a pedicure. But rinsing those feet off, out of welcome, care.
If you can channel a bit of that intimacy, and the discomfort, then I think we’re in a place to begin the journey into this text. “Before the festival of the Passover,” John begins, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Beautifully, John adds – “…he loved them to the end.” Today’s text begins what scholars call the ‘farewell discourse,’ chapters 13-17 in John, and we get four chapters of Jesus’ final lessons. This is what I need you to know, he says.
Jesus gets up, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. He pours water into a basin and begins to wash each of the disciples’ feet, dirty from the work of the day, their travel there. But Jesus was taking something they were used to – walking in, getting your feet washed by a slave, handing your coat and hat to a servant. But the host never did this. But Jesus wasn’t just showing humility, one scholar says. It goes deeper: “Footwashing could be used as a synonym for slavery. To wash another’s feet symbolized the subjugation of one person to another. Those who received footwashing from another were social superiors of those who performed the task.”
Jesus messes all this up. He pushes us deeper, and I think that’s why Peter responds as he does. Peter gets some of this and wonders, Lord, will you? Jesus says that he wouldn’t understand, but would later. Peter refuses, wanting to respect where the boundaries were drawn. You’re in charge. I’m not. If anything, Peter says, I’m your slave – not the reverse. He was still using the old categories, still stuck in what he knew this ritual meant – who did what. It is to this response that Jesus says, unless I wash you then you have no share with me. It’s strong – unless we do this together you don’t understand what all this means. Being rebuked, Peter wants it ALL then, wash all of me! The rest of you is clean enough, you can see Jesus smiling as he shakes his head. We don’t need to go there. Except, as he nods to Judas. Not all of us…
I think Peter is confused because Jesus is breaking the rules and pushing us into a different kind of space with each other. The ways that we are used to relating to each other get upended in the kingdom of God. This takes a step towards notions of hospitality, writes John Pavlovitz in our Lenten Book Read, “A Bigger Table”:
The writer takes note that that in attendance at the meal is Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray Jesus and precipitate his arrest, beating – and execution. This makes Jesus’ act of service all the more radical in its counterintuitive kindness; he extends hospitality to the one who had essentially become his enemy. The gesture is a living parable for us, a reminder that we are to be the washers of feet, not only for those whom we deem worthy or with whom we have affinity, but also for those we are offended by, angered by, or disagree with – those we are least inclined to welcome. It means that whatever caveat we would add as a condition to welcoming or serving another (race, sexual orientation, gender, political affiliation), will need to be removed.”
At the heart of it, I think, Jesus’ lesson here is about proximity. Leaning in close to another person. We had a wonderful Aperture Wednesday evening led by the Rev. Mel Williams, retired pastor from Watts Street Baptist here in town, now the facilitator of End Poverty Durham, a wonderful collaborative that meets down in Room 105 on Wednesday per month, and all around super guy. We were wrestling with issues of poverty and violence and racism, and how they all seem too big, so far away, so overwhelming. It’s hard as heck to figure out where to start. He spoke for a minute about proximity, about, in his words, ‘getting in close for the long term.’ And that pushed me back to today’s text. You can’t wash someone’s feet from far away. You have to kneel down, roll your sleeves up, and lean in. You are forced to confront all of the person in front of you – who you think they are, what your assumptions are. How they smell. You have to engage the full complexity of the feet and the person who, no matter what you might want to think, has a full and rich story, full of joy and hurt. Just like all of us, full of joy and hurt.
And you can’t get close to another person without offering yourself to them as well. And that kind of vulnerability is risky. What if we didn’t just hand a helping hand bag out the door – though I am glad we do this – but then asked that person to meet across the street at a gas station for a snack and a conversation. Maybe they might want to tell you their story, and hear yours. Maybe not. You can’t control what other people do but you can offer another space, joining them not from a comfortable distance but in a place that pushes us. Conversations about issues of race and class and politics are so important, but we must to do them in proximity, leaning in with people who are different from us, who come from different places, and have different stories and believe, with all their heart, some different things. But that involves US risking being transformed as well, which is hard, because I work pretty darned hard to keep it all together. I don’t like when people make me re-think what I think is true. I think this is part of what we see that is so powerful from those extraordinary high school students in Parkland, Florida. They are coming near to us, presenting themselves to us, and it is hard to back away. Any change to make us safer, or to create a more faithful, more hopeful, more whole society and church have to come as we, maybe literally, but certainly metaphorically, wash each other’s feet. We have to get in close. In proximity. And hold fast when we want to step or look away.
I mentioned a month or so ago the book “Wonder,” turned into an extraordinary movie starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson that came out back before the holidays. It is about a fifth grade boy named Auggie Pullman. Auggie has some sort of genetic complication that leads to a disorder called mandibulofacial dysostosis. This means that his face looks pretty different from most kids, and had a series, dozens of surgeries both to make sure everything worked the way it needed to but also to try and make him look more like other kids. But Auggie sticks out in some pretty significant ways, and you’re not going to NOT notice. And that, as you can imagine, has been a really hard thing, growing up being different in such an obvious way, being greeted by children and adults well and treated by children and adults with cruelty. It is Auggie’s story of going to school for the first time in 5th grade, but its really about all of us, the burdens we bear, and how we work them out in our care for each other, wanting so badly to belong, to love others and be loved. In the climactic scene in the school auditorium in the movie, which is a little different from the book, graduation occurs, awards are handed out. As the crowd rises to its feet and the credits rolls you hear Auggie’s voice quote a precept, a life lesson, from one of his teachers who says, “be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle. And if you really want to see what people are, all you have to do is LOOK.”
That is what Jesus is saying here, I think. LOOK, he says. He is calling his disciples, and us, to get in there, mess things up, roll up our sleeves, really dig into the people and the work that matters. It is THIS LOVE, Jesus says as he cleans the crevices between the toes, wiping them dry. It is THIS LOVE that gets in close, where we all smell a little, that changes things, that shows us the kind of people Jesus is calling us to be, if we truly seek to follow him. Get in there, he says. Get in close. For longer than you’d prefer. It is in that place, he says, that we are caught up in grace.
All praise be to God. Amen.
 This article is helpful. It cites Thomas’ book numerous times, which is evidently the key text on this topic. John Christopher Thomas Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community, (Sheffield: JSNT Publishers,1991).
 John Pavlovitz, “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community.” (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), p 67.