Foot washing: giving and receiving care

  • John 13

Foot washing is a holy act for many reasons – not least of which is that Jesus demonstrated to us how to enact it with his disciples and told them to keep doing likewise. But as we all know, we do not copy merely for the sake of copying. Instead it is a way to put ourselves into a posture of worship – embodying a symbol through which we can have a more meaningful experience. Foot washing has been maintained as a practice in Anabaptist tradition exactly because it has meaning on a number of levels.

It symbolically reminds us to be humble enough to serve neighbour and stranger and to know ourselves worthy enough to be served. In it we are washed literally but reminded of a spiritual cleansing of what is tarnished and dirty. Like communion, it offers a promise of reconciliation and forgiveness where there is brokenness and sin. It is physical…perhaps what makes this ritual so powerful is that it involves us in a action that we do not often do even with our intimate friends and family.

Like when we fold our hands or kneel for prayer, walk a labyrinth, raise our hands in blessing when we wash another’s feet and allow our feet to be washed, we are leaving our normal way of being present in worship and taking a new posture. Kneeling, stooping, scooping, pouring, sitting, toweling – all actions that do not happen often in the course of our worship which symbolically allow us to sink into their meaning. Jesus performed these actions for his disciples and we will perform it for our fellow worshipers.

What has been very important to the Mennonite church in it’s history with foot washing is the emphasis on a posture of service and humility. The Mennonite Confession of Faith says it this way…

We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to serve one another in love as he did. Rather than seeking to lord it over others, we are called to follow the example of our Lord, who chose the role of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet.

Just before his death, Jesus stooped to wash the disciples’ feet and told them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” 1 In this act, Jesus showed humility and servanthood, even laying down his life for those he loved. In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus acted out a parable of his life unto death for them, and of the way his disciples are called to live in the world.

Believers who wash each other’s feet show that they share in the body of Christ. 2 They thus acknowledge their frequent need of cleansing, renew their willingness to let go of pride and worldly power, and offer their lives in humble service and sacrificial love.

Serving in humility and offering ourselves to the other in love are very in keeping with Mennonite theology. On the other side, there is also a sense in which we need to be humble enough to accept the service of another – a task that I believe can be much more difficult. Many of us, I’m sure have paid to have our feet buffed and polished and massaged, but it is a much different feeling to put one’s feet or personal care in the hands of a person who is simply offering this blessing. We compensate with phrases like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, I’ll just get the towel…’ or ‘you don’t have to worry about that part’ somehow trying to minimize and prevent the service of the other.

But in all our fallibility, yet we are worthy of receiving grace. Jesus washed the feet of his imperfect and unsure and failing disciples. In our fallibility we are more in need of receiving this gift than if we were whole and perfect. The Brethren recognize this need in their minister’s manual “Oftentimes a harder lesson than serving is the willingness to be served. Pter wanted to reject Christ’s service and would rather have chosen the servant role for himself. We need to be continually renewed. Sometimes and in some ways serving another brings renewal. but more significantly the instrument of our renewal is the service some brother or sister performs for us. Jesus said: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Water is saturated with symbolism of cleansing and renewal and purifying. This is partly why baptism is so meaningful. When I performed the marriage of Manglika and Lalanath last year they asked me to include a Sri Lankan ritual that involved pouring fresh clean water over the joined hands of the newly married couple to represent a new start, a clean beginning. In South Asian culture, Lalanath told me, this is sometimes done with new land and to mark other new beginnings as well. The water of foot washing offers a reminder of the continual need for cleansing and renewal of faith. When Peter asked to be washed all over, Jesus replied that “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his felt, but he is clean all over.” (in John 13:10).

When this cleansing action is offered by a fellow believer, a fellow member of the church, is has the additional significance; newness in relationship and community. It offers the opportunity for healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. In my dialogue with Dylan last week I talked about the meal that Jesus had with his disciples. Jesus ate this last meal with men that he knew were going to betray and deny him. And not only did he eat with them, he took a towel and wrapped in around himself, stripped to his underwear and washed the men’s feet. A vulnerable position to be in.

Seattle Mennonite church is a resilient community. It is tenacious and strong, but there has been pain here. There have been broken relationships and hurt. When we can sit at table together, when we can offer ourselves in service to our sisters and brothers, even when we do not agree, we allow ourselves to be in the vulnerable position of hopeful and holy relationship – not necessarily in unison or full accord, but with a will to be humble in Christ.

When Jesus washed his disciples feet he was crossing a barrier that was unspeakable for his disciples. He was their revered teacher and they his students. He was their master and they his followers. Even though he had taught them the lesson of the upside-down kingdom in many ways before this event, he had never shown it so clearly as he did when he offered to wash their feet. I contacted John Rempel recently, who was a professor of mine and who was a key writer of the ministers’ manual for the Mennonite Church to ask him why foot washing didn’t have a greater presence in the Ministers’ Manual. He shared with me an excerpt from an Alan Paton book (the author of Cry the Beloved Country ) in which an esteemed white South African judge washes the feet of his black maid in the context of an all black worship service. It is a powerful piece of writing and yet even that is not a situation that resonates for us. In a society where, at least nominally, we tout equality, there is not so near a parallel boundary to be crossed.

To me, it seems, the boundary that we face and cross in foot washing is the physicality of the action. Perhaps especially in the Mennonite church where we have traditionally given very little credence to expressions of faith that involved senses other than sight and sound, that involve our bodies below our necks, it is the physical-ness of this ritual that is powerful. We not only embody the symbols of humility, grace, service, cleansing and reconciliation, we experience healthy and loving ways to touch.

Stephanie Paulsell writes in her article “Honoring the Body,” “Our culture cries out for ways of understanding what is and is not an appropriate way of touching, what are and are not loving, generous ways of moving back and forth across the boundaries that our bodies establish between us…

“The stories about bathing give us some insight into how we might teach ourselves and our children about appropriate touch…The woman who weeps over Jesus’ feet show that, although touch can be extravagant and surprising, its power lies in its gentleness. Jesus’ own washing of the feet of his disciples teaches us that it is appropriate to cross the boundaries between us only from motives of generosity and not from a desire to please ourselves alone.

“Ritual acts of touching, such as foot washing and exchanging signs of peace in worship, offer us opportunities to learn to touch one another in peace and love.”

Now that I’ve expounded on the meaning and symbolism of foot washing, as you moving into the ritual itself I invite you to forget everything I just talked about. Instead, let the action be what it will be for you. Indeed the beauty of ritual and symbol is that we can experience them in ways that we will not even expect and the experience will be different for each person each time. Know only that as you have you feet washed by another, you are experience the ministry of Christ and as you wash another’s feet, you are being Christ to that person. However we participate in this time, if it is simply through sitting and experiencing the singing, be blessed by the gifts of our friends.