After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?
It was my big brother who started me worrying about my feet. I trained as a ballerina throughout my childhood and there was a period, before the skin on my feet toughened up, that was not pretty. Lots of ballerinas wear sandals and open-toed shoes to give their feet a rest, and my brother took offense at my participation in this practice. I’ll never forget the summer my mom bought me my first pair of wedge sandals. I thought I looked cute, but my brother howled, “Look at your feet! There should be a law against you wearing sandals! You should have to wear socks to the beach!” I laugh now, but at fourteen years-old, I was crushed.
It was during a communion service at the St. Thomas Reformed Church that I knew God was calling me to ministry – in particular to a healing ministry as revealed in…feet. As the pastoral intern, I was not able to serve the Lord’s Supper, but I was able to sit on the chancel and watch the procession of the faithful as they shuffled forward. This particular Sunday, something drew my gaze down to their feet – some beautifully manicured, some tired and swollen. Most in sandals appropriate for the tropical climate, all advancing on the minister who extended the same life giving bread and saving cup to all.
Time slowed down, and I saw clearly that this procession was a repetition of a procession that has been occurring for centuries. People of faith have been dancing their feet to the table for hundreds of years – the same feet that have done the good work of carrying them through the mountains and valleys of life. And now these feet were carrying them down the center aisle to a Jesus who would meet and dance with them. It was a parade of human stories, carried on diverse feet to the table of our Lord. Dancing forward, regardless of circumstance. Dancing expectantly forward in anticipation of sweet bread and lip puckering juice made available to all. The rich and the poor, the well-heeled and the homeless, the grandparents, the toddlers and everyone in between, ambling to the table God has set for all the people. Ambling on their feet. Suddenly, my eyes were awash in tears and an overwhelming tenderness for the people attached to the beautiful feet before me.
A good friend from seminary is a self-described artist-theologian. He cured me of any residual self-consciousness about my feet when he said he wanted to paint them. “Paint my feet?!!! I croaked. “Yes,” he said, “They look like they’ve been through something, like they have done some work. They look strong.” Yes, they’ve been through a lot – climbed a lot of mountains and seen a fair number of valleys. Our conversation about feet reminded me of the strong people, capable people shuffling forward to God’s table in hopes of receiving something – a cleansing, a strengthening, an uplifting that would change something or anything.
You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if 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. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Had communion culminated that Sunday morning in a foot washing, I would not have been able to contain myself. I wonder, if communion culminated in a foot washing every time we shared bread and cup, what would be transformed in hearts and minds and communities? How would the church be catapulted into the center of God’s heart which is love?
My most profound experience of a foot washing ritual was performed on a nearly brand new baby. Her mother brought her forward and placed those impossibly teeny feet and wee toes in the basin of water. Baby girl kicked around a bit, and then someone wrapped her feet in a soft, woolly towel and dabbed them dry. The experience of feet coming to the table and baby feet drying in a towel captures for me the tenderness with which Jesus views our feet every moment of our lives. On this Maundy Thursday he takes our feet in hand, not to prove his love, but to remind us that this is how he has always loved us.
And isn’t that the hope in our hearts as we make our way in this life – to do so on feet that Jesus adores? Don’t we long for love lavished on the misshapen and malodorous parts of ourselves and our living? Wouldn’t it be grace for someone to see and make art from the pieces of our life that have been through something and that others wish we would cover up? I wish this level of intimacy in liturgy for all God’s children because I believe washing feet and naming them all beautiful will transform us to the servant community Jesus calls us to be in John’s gospel. We will be blessed if we know these things and do them.
You and your feet are loved,