Foot-washing, a step too far?

Those gorgeous white blossoms, sharp blue skies, lighter evenings and lesser clothes layers – they can only mean one thing:  it’s Spring.  I love Spring.  Except for one thing.  That one thing happened last week.  School over, he dropped into the front seat of the car waving the familiar larger-than-A4 manilla-coloured empty scrapbook.  “Mum, its PROJECT time!”  (I recognise that even referring to this will set many primary-school parents among you to break into a cold sweat, but there it is.)  Every year I know its coming.  And every year I’m unprepared for the panic it initiates in the household.  This year (project no. 18), its going to be different.  This year the subject is Science.  And my husband is a Scientist.  So I’m taking the year off.

Oblivious, my son pursues me about his idea to do this school project on The Five Senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell.  He challenged me to choose one sense that I could do without, if I had to.  On the basis that I am in my happy place walking barefoot with our dog on a sandy beach eating a bar of chocolate, I chose to lose the sense of smell.  Spare me the messages about wafts of hot chocolate or baking doughnuts.  And my favourite sense?  Has to be ‘touch’ – I love foot massages.

This conversation happened the same week that I was caught up reading “Barefoot” (by Sharon Garlough Brown).  In it, a challenge arose to use every one of the body’s senses to get inside what’s happening in the Bible passage of John 13: 1-17, where there’s a whole lot of feet-washing going on.  Maybe I’ll bring you into the story with me?

Jesus is now perhaps only 24 hours away from death. He has come from God and soon he will return to God.  Those he loves particularly – his disciples – are in a room with him eating supper.  He knows he will be betrayed overnight.  He knows that that person is in the room.  He sets his mind on preparing the disciples for his departure.  Not with a speech.  Nor with a To Do list.

He gets up from supper.

He takes off his coat.

He takes a towel in his hand.

He wraps the towel around his waist.

He pours water into a basin.

Friend by friend, He washes their feet.

Then He dries them with the towel from his waist.

Seven deliberate, visible steps.

Picture that.  Twelve pairs of feet.  One towel.  Reclining chairs.  A full room.  They’re tired.  It’s late.  Jesus is the Son of God.

Taste the meal, the wine that is prepared and wafting in the room.

Dusty roads will have meant dirty, stinking feet, with or without sandals; the smell doesn’t bear thinking about.

Listen for the munching and the slurping, the chatter over supper with the 12, by now, close friends – subdued maybe, after their previous arguments over which of them is greater than the other.

But one of them, one pair of feet which Jesus moves to wash, belongs to Judas Iscariot, the friend who would decide to betray Jesus, walk straight to the authorities and turn Him in.  That pair of feet, like every other in the room, feels the touch of Jesus’ hands.

The level of intimacy involved in this scene is not lost on me.  Nor I am sure on you.  A touch of someone’s hand is a personal thing.

Washing someone’s feet doesn’t happen fast, like a handshake, nor artlessly, like a slap on the back.  It is a deliberate act of service.  And this to His betrayer.

I don’t know why but this was the first time that I fully recognised that Judas was in the foot-washing narrative.  Using all senses to witness the story, I jolted at the image of Jesus moving towards Judas, kneeling in front of him, dragging the basin from the previous disciple, looking him in the eye and reaching for Judas’ dusty feet.  Did Judas feel uncomfortable?  I did.  If Jesus had washed these feet to change Judas’ mind, it didn’t work.  So, was it a step too far?

Jesus puts his own coat back on and returns to his supper.  “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asks (the disciples) them.  “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

I should think you could have heard a pin drop by now.

I realise that there are all sorts of points to this foot-washing story.  To me, the scene is one of the most profound images of the heart of God.  Humble, self-sacrificing love.  At work.  Actions speaking louder than words.

I finished the book.  But not before I finished the challenge.  So I pass it on to you:

Imagine Jesus kneeling before you, looking you in the eye, reaching for your dusty feet.  Is it easy to offer them?  Is there any hesitation?  Is there resistance?  And whose feet might you find it difficult to wash?  Who sits in Judas’ chair in your room?

I read through this last challenge and reconsidered those whom I find difficult to love.  I wish I could tell you I was ready to take up the towel.  Equally, I wasn’t as ready to throw in the towel either.

As Alex wrote in a blog some months ago: “God is an all-loving, all-forgiving, all-gracious God who looks at you and says you’re worth dying for.  Just like he looks at the person next to you and says the same.”  Jesus washed everyone’s feet that evening.

When everything in me resists, and all my senses tell me ‘no’, I choose to remember the absolute heart of God from this foot-washing story, and pray that the Holy Spirit continue His work of grace in me, and have that towel ready.


One Response to “Foot-washing, a step too far?”

  1. Sharon Brown

    What a beautiful reflection, Karen! Your post reached me yesterday, and I would love to share it via my email newsletter. Is that all right with you?

    Blessings to you as you continue to keep Jesus company as he kneels.

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