Every few weeks he would turn up. Curled up asleep in the sun on the back veranda of the drop in centre. Smelly, dirty, no filthy. He was still wearing clothes we gave him last visit. They hadn’t been off and they hadn’t been washed. Neither had he. His perfume was definitely not one you would buy at the perfume encounter of David Jones or Myers.
He was 15/16 years of age. Angry, violent, lost, lonely and unable to fit into society. Well, not very easily. He came to us because he knew we would care.
First ting was to get him in the shower and separate him from his clothes. Not always an easy task. You could say they were worn in, into his skin. With a little bit of soaking and snip here and there with a pair of scissors, he transformed into a clean, nicely dressed, sweet smelling young man. After a brief visit with the nurse (Gaye) for a once over, he got something to eat and whatever was required.
In this case, the feet were just a part of what was washed. Truth be told we all got a good wash! Yet it was never a chore, it was just part of our life with him.
Jesus performs the same routine for his disciples, but in their case their feet would not have been dirty. The laws of hospitality would have been followed and their feet would have ben washed by the host as they entered the building. Jesus was not thinking about cleaning them up but about showing them an example.
Here was an example of unconditional service. Serving others as an equal not as a servant, as a form of love not duty, and in the universal, not the particular. Jesus didn’t choose whose feet he would wash. He didn’t play favourites. It wasn’t a token act to make a point. He washed them all. John says ‘when he finished washing their feet’ they sat down for the meal and the sharing of several other theological tidbits.
He even washed the feet of Judas, and if we believe John, when he did he knew whose feet he was washing – his betrayer’s. This is worth considering. As Christians we have a tendency to only wash the feet, in other words to serve, those within our club, our congregation, our worship group, those we particularly worship with. We rarely take the risk of washing our betrayers feet.
We find it hard to wash the feet of those different to us, those whose cultures are based on different definitions of the spiritual, relationships and norms. Refugees who come by boat don’t have their feet washed by us. They get a one way ticket to a concentration camp. There was no washing of the Aboriginal Australians feet, they were massacred so we could build a new country dedicated to the fair-go and mate-ship. It is only recently that the church, for example, has washed the feet of women and allowed them a place in the leadership of the church. The secular world is only a little bit better. We are yet to do that to the gay community and there is smidgen of condescension in how we wash the feet of the disabled. Washing the feet of prisoners in our gaols calls for a different mission, one we struggle with.
And when we do wash their feet we are looking for something in return, their soul. We want them to take on the same world-view as we have. They need to be transformed to think as we do.
When we take students on silent retreats, teachers come up to us with a long list of faults and failings in a particular child with the hope these would be solved over the weekend away. Apart from the fact that they expected us to change 15 years of ingrained behaviours in three days, they failed to miss the fact that as we spend time with them, wash their feet, we do so unconditionally. There is no expectation of conversion to a set of ideas, simply the gift of hospitality.
The idea sitting behind Jesus appropriation of this act of hospitality is one of giving each other the gift of possibility, and Jesus did not exclude Judas from his place amongst the others in the ritual. His example says that we are not exclude anyone from receiving this gift of hospitality because we think we know something about them that precludes from receiving it. That is not our choice, nor was it the choice that Jesus made. He simply washed feet. The outcome for each of the disciples, including Judas, was not his to determine.
Like all good stories, there has to be a villain. Judas fits the bill easily. But I suspect it was way more complicated than the Gospel writers tell it. Jesus didn’t even try to fathom it. He left the choice up to Judas and didn’t try and change his mind. He simply washed his feet and broke bread with him.
It is not easy to wash feet. It is dangerous. It is unproductive most of the time. It asks us to cross our preconceived ideas and manufactured fears. It asks us to touch another whose toe nails maybe odd and misshapen (mine). It asks us to welcome the stranger and to reach out with hospitality and possibility simply because it is what one human being does for another.
And, if we are honest, we avoid it. We don’t like others doing it for us because we, like Peter, are independent, capable and don’t need anyone else to wash our feet. We then use that same thinking to excuse us from doing it for others. I wouldn’t like to embarrass them, I don’t want to disrespect them, they might be hurt if I ask if I can do something for them that they can do for themselves and more.
We are not good at washing feet.
The Executive Officer of the Naval base and I were standing on the parade ground when the Chaplain arrived. A sailor was on a pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the chaplain had been called to attend. When he arrived he asked the E.O., “What do you want me to do?” The EO looked at him, and said, (this is the churchified version), “Right now anything would be good!” (You can add your own adjectives).
The call to wash feet rarely comes as an executive order with the protocol outlined. We simply do something. Smile at a mother with a noisy child so she knows you understand, give a hand to another to get on the tram, open the door for those who are different to us, help people find an item in a grocery store just because they can’t find it, give a call to some one who is sick, visit someone who is housebound, write your name on a petition to change laws that discriminate or to get more action on things like domestic violence, refugees or the closing of indigenous remote communities, and so much more.
As we head into the abyss that is Good Friday, let us remember what Jesus did the night before the brutality, violence and blood of that day. He washed his disciples feet. He washed Judas’s feet. Worth thinking about. Amen