Foot washing. Ugh. This was the task assigned to the lowliest servant of a home in ancient times in lands where people wore sandals and streets were filthy. When I visited Pompeii, I noted areas along streets where there were little speed-bumps, taller stones its citizens had used for crossing the street and thus avoiding the filth strewn in it. If one had a visitor in say, Nazareth or Jerusalem, a servant would bring fresh water and kneeling to the task, wash their feet of the dust and debris accumulated on their journey.
So Jesus knelt before his disciples, a physical, active metaphor for the life to which he called them. The first shall be the last, and the last, first. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it until I saw this:
I was the Lector at a Maundy Thursday service at my old parish in Texas and sitting in the pews transverse to the center aisle of the sanctuary, I had the best seat in the house.
I loved the service, but not the foot washing and not just because foot washing is icky. It might help to know I was well into my 40s before I got my first pedicure. I don’t like anyone messing with my feet, referred to by a man I once knew as “luau” feet, because he said Hawaiians also have wide feet since they never wear shoes, thus managing to insult me while maligning an entire race in one fell swoop. But I digress…
There I was, sitting in the pew watching the foot washing, trying not to laugh at my daughter and her co-acolyte as they scurried back and forth with horrified expressions, removing basins full of used water. A lovely woman who had ALS and used a small, electric scooter thing to get around when she wasn’t up to managing her crutches whirred up to the altar. The ushers helped her stand and sit in the chair where the last person whose feet were washed in turn knelt and washed her small, pretty feet. Then she beckoned the ushers help her assume a kneeling position and so receive the next in line, a big man who wore big, dirty, scuffed, ancient cowboy boots always and every single day. Off came the boots, off came thick, white, sweat-stained tube socks and in my over-active imagination I saw corns and fungus and cracked, no, fissured heels and waves of stink coming off those feet. But there she was, with her ALS and lovely, serene face, tenderly taking those big ole feet in her small, manicured hands and washing them gently and lovingly.
I knew something about both of them. She, a highly-educated professional woman with a long and successful career. He, less well-placed socially and a little broken, I think, though always kind and considerate; a good man. It was sort of like watching the lady of the castle wash the feet of the blacksmith. But I got it. Years in the Episcopal church, years of hearing the story, and I finally got it.
In the years since I have found foot washing opportunities in many forms, opportunities to be of service, to love the unlovable, be present for those in need of presence, see the false value in pride. It’s an evolving lesson I am still learning, the lesson of humility and service taught by Jesus in the form of a petite, handicapped woman and a cowboy.
May y’all have a blessed Maundy Thursday and whether you wash feet or not, may you experience the beauty and tenderness of the lesson.