by Rev. Mindy Smith
I was 32 years old and found myself sitting in a podiatrist’s waiting room. I remember how uncomfortable I felt sitting there when I realized the two elderly women next to me were both in wheelchairs and knew the nurses by name. I was too young it seemed for my feet to have failed me. When I finally got in to see the foot doc the diagnosis came down like a cruel joke: “Bunions,” he stated. “You’ve got two nasty bunions.” Bewildered and embarrassed I quickly went home and googled, “bunions.” And what I found was not pretty. Like the internet is prone to do it led me to a world of foot impediments, foot diseases, foot surgeries, and the consequences of an ingrown toe-nail.
During this time when both my feet had to be operated on, I began to study them. Feet are often ignored, unappreciated, and covered up, I discovered. (Unless of course, on a rare occasion, a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes shows up, and then they become the focal point.) Most of the time though, feet, rarely get much attention if they are doing their job well. If they are moving us where we need to be, at the appropriate speed, with efficiency and stride, they often go unnoticed. Yet, if a toe gets stubbed, or an Achilles becomes compromised, or God-forbid a bunion shows up, every other part of the body is affected. I ended up spending some good time with my podiatrist that year and I remember he told me, “If the feet go down, it affects everything. Your legs, your knees, your back, the feet are central to our whole body function. You must make it a practice to care for your feet.” And he said, “No high heels. Never wear high heels.”
The feet are crucial to how our bodies function, how we move about, how we work, how we serve. So, it is no surprise that the Bible so often mentions the work of the feet as necessary to spread the gospel. Isaiah described them, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings the good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The Hebrews scriptures say this, “And make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” And in Samuel, “For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? This God is my strong refuge and has made my way blameless. He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.” When God gets his hands on our feet, the scriptures affirm they are praised for bringing the good news, for building peace, for claiming salvation and they exude joy.
As Jesus’ life on earth was coming to an end he gathered his friends together one last time. The ministry that Jesus had led for three years was finally coming in off the streets and had moved into a small, simple upper room. Imagine that room. A simple meal, a few good friends and the anticipation of what was to come. Leslie Newbiggin described it this way, “the noise of the cosmos has died away: the stillness of night prevails (Bultmann). And yet, in that quiet room, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the mission to the world on which he will send them.” And before they gathered to eat, Jesus got his hands on their feet.
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And youare clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (Jn 13:1-17)
John in his gospel writes: Jesus knew “that the time had come to leave this world to go to the Father.” He also knew that Satan had Judas firmly in his grip, that his traitor’s mind was made up and betrayal was inevitable. But the scriptures go on to tell us “Jesus also knew that the father had put him in complete charge of everything. That he came from God and was on his way back to God.” There, two stories being written simultaneously. The first includes the details of the gathering in the upper room shrouded in anxiety, tension, fear, and betrayal. And at the same time Jesus’ deep knowledge of the story God was of a love poured out for his people. A story of a suffering servant who in his faithfulness would wipe away the sins of the world.
Jesus’ life was drawing to a rapid end. The worst brutality of his life was going to seize him at any moment. Yet, notice here that he does not talk about strategy, or his autobiography, or his next book. He does not talk to them about becoming people of influence. He does not talk about acquiring power or outsmarting the world at its own game. And instead of fighting, or complaining, or breaking-down, Jesus stayed attuned to the story God was writing. He got in the back of the line, disregarded the place of honor, and he moved in low. The Son of God did the most ordinary of mundane tasks and did the washing no one wanted to do. In the face of his bestial ordeal, he stood up and wrapped a towel around his waist.
The culture of that time required people to walk around all day in a hot, dusty environment with just sandals on. Walking in sandals on the filthy roads of Israel in the first century made it imperative that feet be washed before a communal meal, especially since people reclined at a low table. No one was interested in going near the feet. The rabbis said that if you had a Jewish servant they were not required to wash feet. Since there was no servant present to wash their feet, it would never have occurred to them to wash one another’s feet.
When Jesus took off his outer robe and stooped to this lowly task, they were stunned into silence. To his credit, though, Peter was profoundly uncomfortable with the Lord washing his feet, and, never being at a loss for words, he protested, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus then calmly explained the obvious to Peter. Everyone in this room is the same. Everyone here has filthy feet. It is the common denominator. Everyone has feet that need to be washed. Even Judas. And I suspect when it was Judas’ turn Jesus looked him in the eye and then graciously dropped his head and dipped his hands in the water basin. Slowly letting the water drip through his fingers, holding his foot gently, allowing the dirt that covered Judas’ toes, and ankles wash into Jesus’ hands. And at that moment Jesus’ love was not an act of sympathy but a loving act of empathy. Sympathy would say, “I feel sorry for you because your feet are dirty.” Whereas an empathetic love would say, “I do this because your dirty feet are also mine.” This is what we describe as agape love, love that suffers with. Jesus in his most humble position that evening is offering a depth of love which connects the disciples to himself AND connects them to each other through the agency of pain. God doesn’t love us from a safe distance. No, God’s agape-love draws him right into the middle of our struggles and pain. God sent his Son as a suffering servant, the man of sorrows, the crucified Messiah. In Jesus Christ, we see this love that doesn’tstay aloof in heaven, but a love that plunges into the pain of this broken world — bearing it, dying for it, redeeming it. We’re never closer to the heart of God than when our own heart is breaking. Agape-love is a suffering love from a God who claims, “your pain is my pain.” FrederickBuechner once said this: “The Buddha sits under the lotus tree with eyes closed to keep the pain of the world out. Jesus hangs on the cross with his eyes open to let the pain of the world in.”
And when he was done, Jesus commanded them to do the same. Live empathetically. Live in a way in which you do not just see someone’s pain, but you live in the pain together, standing in the back of the line, in the low places, recognizing we are all the same, we all have nasty feet, we are all broken, filthy people who need a savior to wash us clean.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, “Death will be under God’s feet.” Death will cower at God. Death has not been the victor, God is. We know this because Christ is alive! Jesus Christ, God’s one and only begotten, loved and cherished son, who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself.” He willingly poured it all out and “taking the form of a slave, he took off his outer robe and washed the feet of his disciples.” He cared for their feet so they could walk in paths of righteousness. Christ did not use his feet to destroy his enemies but instead washed the feet of his betrayers. He was crucified between two thieves and one nail was driven through his two feet with the right foot over the left foot. His feet were destroyed. He took a final breath. And then, three days later he stood, there on his own two feet, on solid ground.
Heed this holy mandate: Live close to the feet of others. And not because you are striving to be justified like Peter, but because you recognize you are just like Judas. All of us in the human race are much more alike than we are different. We are all relying on our feet to take us somewhere. So, the command is to walk in his footsteps as he leads you to the back of the line. When he asks you to suffer for another. When death feels close at hand. When your betrayer sits before you. Jesus patiently redirects Peter, and he quietly moves toward Judas. He crouches down by his feet. Because Jesus knows he is writing a different story. One in which we finally realize that the kingdom of God is filled with people in the back of the line and one by one Jesus the Christ is washing us clean, and as the water of life drips down between our toes, and the dirt disappears, he brings the towel up around our ankles. And as he does, I can hear the Savior quietly singing, “how lovely on the mountains are the feet of them that bring good news.” He wrings out his towel and when he is finishes he moves us up into the high places in which the feet we stand on proclaim the love of the Suffering Servant, Jesus the Christ, the Savior of the world.