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. John 13:14-16
The first time I ever experienced the Christian practice of foot washing was at a middle school retreat in a workshop that (as I look back now with pastor eyes) was about resurrection. We read the story of the Velveteen Rabbit together and talked about the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the new life offered in the resurrection – just like the toy rabbit must be sacrificed, and in his new life becomes a real rabbit.
Then we were asked to turn to our neighbor and wash one another’s feet. I still remember that I washed and was washed by my childhood friend Caty. I don’t remember being embarrassed or weirded out by the event. Honestly, the thing I remember most was the refreshing feeling I had the rest of that afternoon with squeaky clean feet. It is the same feeling I get when I dangle my feet in the bathtub to clean them after a day of working in the garden.
The tradition of foot-washing comes from a story about Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel of John. Jesus takes on the role of the servant in that dusty, sandal-wearing culture, stooping down to perform this basest of acts, humbling himself before his disciples. The disciples protest, and he assures them that the master must become the servant, and adds that if they would not let him wash their feet, then they could not be his students.
In some Christian traditions, including the Mennonite tradition, foot-washing has become a liturgical ritual along with the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Because my husband is Mennonite and we are attempting to raise our son as both a Presbyterian and a Mennonite, I have wondered how to make this foot-washing tradition a part of my son’s own religious psyche.
The “lesson” of this story, and the premise of the ritual, is to know how to allow others to serve you, to be humble in leadership, and to blur the lines between the servants and the masters.
I have to acknowledge that it is already a pretty fuzzy line in our household between servant and parent. Though we are centuries removed from the culture of foot-washing as a daily necessity, it is almost a daily occurrence in the life of a child. There is no one in the world whose feet I have washed more times (outside of my own) than my child’s – and not just the feet, but the face, the hands, the butt and other parts as well.
Even though I didn’t flinch at the thought of washing a friend’s feet on that retreat in middle school, I will admit that I eventually “matured” into being a little creeped out by the idea. That was until I became a parent, and physical intimacy meant something different; now I am much less bothered by humbling myself to care for others.
It is being a parent that has turned me into the one who will step into the public toilet stall while teenage girls cower in the bathroom because the last person who used it didn’t flush. It is being a parent that makes me not think twice about using my own arm as a human squeegee to remove the remnants of a spilled soda from the carpet of a fifteen passenger van. That is servant leadership if I ever saw it.
The issue that adults frequently have with foot-washing (and with life) is that we are not willing to allow others to serve/help us. At least, this is the complaint that I usually get from folks. Yes, I will humble myself to serve others, but I am not willing to be vulnerable enough to let others serve me. I will wash a hundred feet, as long as I get to keep my shoes on.
I am not sure when we learn to be like this, because it would never cross my son’s mind to object to being served, cared for or cleaned by another person. Maybe it is in teaching our children to be self-sufficient and to keep their hands to themselves that we wind up turning them into adults who can’t accept help from another.
Or maybe our children to turn into adults like this because they see us act in this way. They see us care for them when they are sick but refuse to slow down or receive care when we are sick. They go with us when we take a meal to a friend going through a difficult time, but how often do they witness our own families being the recipient of kindnesses from others? How often do we admit to our children in honest ways that we need help from others? (And not just help by doing their chores.)
Although we will not be washing one another’s feet this evening in my Presbyterian congregation, I have considered asking my son to wash my feet for me – not because it will teach him to be humble, but because it will show him that I can be vulnerable. Not because it will teach him that he needs to learn to serve others, but because it will teach him that I am willing to be served.
Clearly Jesus understood that the disciples would learn just as much from his actions as they would from his teachings. They would learn how to give and receive by the way he gave and received.
May we all be as mindful of the example we set.
My very favorite Maundy Thursday hymn, that I first heard at a Mennonite wedding, was this beautiful interpretation of servant leadership. May this be the refrain we sing and that we show to our children:
Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the graceTo let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you;
Speak the peace you long to hear.
Brother, sister let me serve you.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.(Richard Gilllard, 1976)
What experiences do you have of footwashing and how has it shaped your understanding of servanthood, leadership or even parenting?