John 13:1-8, 14-17, 31b – 35
After washing the disciples’ feet at the last supper, Jesus says to them, “If I, then – your Teacher and Sovereign – have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet … Once you know all these things, you will be blessed if you put them into practice.”
Blessed if you put them into practice. Blessed if we wash one another’s feet.
It’s enough to make us feel uncomfortable. I mean, drumming up the courage to maybe, possibly wash each other’s feet once a year is hard enough but the idea that we would be blessed if we went around just washing people’s feet all the time is a bit much.
Let’s be honest. Feet are smelly, dirty, full of sock lint, and not our most attractive feature. At the last supper, I totally understand why Peter says to Jesus – stay away from my nasty feet!
The idea of foot washing is hard for Peter, and for us, and even for medical doctors.
Doctors like Dr. James O’Connell.
In the book Stories from the Shadows, Dr. O’Connell describes the excitement that he felt when he landed his first job as a doctor at Pine Street Inn, a shelter for homeless people in Boston, MA. The shelter had over seven hundred beds and includes a nurses’ clinic. Each visit to the clinic begins with a foot soak. The waiting area has chairs with buckets in front of them of warm water and an antibacterial.
On O’Connell’s first day, he energetically asks one of the nurses where he should get started. She sets aside his stethoscope and says: “Just tend to the feet and ask the patients what else you can do to help. That’s it.”
No medical questions, no diagnosing.
Only feet. So for the first two months of his job, O’Connell washes feet. O’Connell tells the story of getting to know one man at the shelter with schizophrenia and legs so swollen each needed their own bucket. O Connell had met the man previously at the hospital where he had had his residency. The man had never followed their medical instructions and had refused all medication.
After O’Connell has been soaking this man’s feet for a month, the man says, “I thought you were supposed to be a doctor. What are you doing soaking my feet?”
Dumbfounded, O’Connell replies, “I do whatever the nurses tell me to do.”
A few nights later, the man tells O’Connell that he isn’t sleeping well and O’Connell prescribes a helpful medication. In the following weeks, the man accepts treatment for his mood and auditory hallucinations. Three months later, the man is placed in a group home after 25 years of living on streets.
O’Connell washed the man’s feet and somehow he had found healing.
Once you know all these things, you will be blessed if you put them into practice.
There is something about foot washing that is transformative. Something about the intimacy of taking another’s calloused feet into our hands, and saying, “I see you. I bless you.” Something holy about love pouring over a part of our body for which we have so little regard.
Jesus takes our feet in his hands, sees the contour lines, feels the callouses, smells the sweat and is in awe of how far we have journeyed. Jesus sees that it is our feet that have gotten us here and that, indeed, they are beautiful.
That is why we are blessed when we put Jesus’ ordinance into practice. Because we discover, that our own blistered, dirty feet are in fact a holy vessel of pilgrimage.
A holy vessel of pilgrimage.
Last year on Maundy Thursday, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, bent down on his knees and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners. As he finished cleaning each person’s feet, he would bow his head to their feet and kiss them.
“I see you. I bless you.”
The voices of the world so often tries to tell us who we are and what we are worth, and in the midst of that cacophony, Jesus bends down, washes the dust off our feet and reminds us that it is God’s love that defines us and enfolds every circumstance in our lives.
In places of heartache, of mental illness, of addiction, of physical illness, of poverty, of bombings, in moments when we can’t even get out of bed, Jesus tends our feet with the greatest possible care. When Jesus comes across our blisters and bruises, he says to us, like a beloved friend, “What a journey you must have walked.”
I see you. I bless you and I love you, now and all the days ahead.
Once we discover the truth about foot washings, not only what it does to our feet but what it does to our souls, we are blessed if we go forth and put it into practice.