One prediction I have about life after Covid-19, is that hand-washing will never be viewed the same way again.
I have to admit that over the years, I’ve been pretty cavalier about handwashing. I can proudly proclaim that from childhood, my hands have always been washed after trips to the biffy, and I’m sure that’s reassuring to the congregations I have served … but, have I always washed my hands after handling a shopping basket or using an ATM? After closing a door? Loading the dishwasher? Rubbing my eye? We have a whole new awareness of when to wash our hands, and how.
The habits of handwashing that are so important in medical facilities have now been introduced to our daily lives, not just as a good practice but as one of the absolute basics in being healthy and staying healthy. Stay home if you’re ill, wash your hands 20 seconds or more with soap and water, self-isolate if you’ve travelled – this commonly-held litany will stay in our minds for a long, long time. It may well be part of the “new normal” going forward.
Today’s second reading from the gospel of John is a story, not of hand-washing, but of foot-washing, and this too was something that lodged itself into the shared memory of a community, as they tried to determine what their “new normal” was going to look like.
Whenever we read the gospels, we need to remember the change in context between the events themselves, and the written, shared version. When I think of the ministry of Jesus, there’s an openness to it. Yes, there were times when Jesus and the disciples were chased out of towns, and yes, there was greater scrutiny of their actions when they were in Jerusalem or within earshot of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but there were also crowds of people come to be healed – and taught – and fed. There was travel from town to town, women and men transformed as they joined this movement of transformative love. While the challenging words of Jesus were potentially dangerous, there was also a dynamic free-flow to the whole thing.
That was not the situation by the time the gospels were written. Particularly in the days of emperor Nero, those declaring an allegiance to Christ were seen as enemies of the state, and gathering in the name of Christ needed to be more and more clandestine. It was in this context of religious lock-down that the events of Jesus’ life, by then 30 or 50 or 70 years distant, took written form. And in the 13th chapter of John, we hear how that group of Christ-followers, dealing with the challenges of their day, remembered how Jesus interacted with his beloved community, in the last full day of his life.
And what they remembered, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, unfolded like this:
“he [Jesus] got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. When he got to Simon Peter, Peter said, “Master, you wash my feet?”
7 Jesus answered, “You don’t understand now what I’m doing, but it will be clear enough to you later.” 8 Peter persisted, “You’re not going to wash my feet—ever!”
Jesus said, “If I don’t wash you, you can’t be part of what I’m doing.”
9 “Master!” said Peter. “Not only my feet, then. Wash my hands! Wash my head!”
10-12 Jesus said, “If you’ve had a bath in the morning, you only need your feet washed now and you’re clean from head to toe. My concern, you understand, is holiness, not hygiene.”…
After he [Jesus] had finished washing their feet, he took his robe, put it back on, and went back to his place at the table. 12-17 Then he said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life.”
In its setting in the gospel of John, this story happens mere hours before the crucifixion – as the group had gathered for their final Passover together. This, then, is the opportunity for Jesus to share a final impression for his disciples to hold on to – those around the table with him then, and all who strive to follow him in our day. And what he does, in actions more powerful than words, is model what it is to be in right relationship with the world: it is to take upon oneself the attitudes and actions of servanthood.
That posture of servanthood has been so evident, in our congregation’s newly-arisen prayer group, in our network of Care Contacts and Care Couriers, in the efforts of our Church committees and the Chinook Winds United Church Region to remain active and engaged in these days of big adjustment. Actively serving the needs of others is also being expressed in broad, community-based ways. Over 2,000 people, for example, are part of the Stone Soup Canmore Facebook group, offering to run errands and make deliveries for those who cannot or should not be doing so, as well as lessening isolation through simple gifts like reading books aloud online for all ages to enjoy. In times of increased worry, this commitment to serve others steps forward in beautiful, brave, creative ways – and our hope and prayer is that this same selflessness will continue to shape community life after the threat has ended. We would be remiss if we did not also honour another kind of service: the daily service of all who continue to work on the front-lines, providing essential services to support the wellbeing of all.
Jesus demonstrated the principles of service and servanthood, through his actions; and the specific action chosen this night, was foot-washing. This was a common enough thing, offered as an act of both hospitality and necessity in a dusty land where sandals were the footwear of choice, but for Jesus to do so should capture our attention.
Footwashing, in that time and place, was the job of servants or slaves. Hannah Adams Ingram writes about the broader implications of serving and being served: “Historically, women have been encouraged to put others above themselves in often harmful ways, while men have sometimes received the opposite message. We must always take great care when we affirm the sacrificial humility of Christ, discerning how this powerful exemplar can challenge Western self-centeredness and …[lift up] those who never put themselves first.” Pulling on an apron, kneeling to service, Jesus calls everyone, regardless of gender, whether we tend to be a person who serves or one who expects to be served, to adopt a worldview that takes need seriously, and works to alleviate it. This goes, whether the needs are someone else’s, or our own needs for which we hesitate to ask for help. The act of serving is lifted by Jesus, from subservience to nothing short of holiness. Footwashing is re-framed, from common courtesy, to an action that describes who Jesus was in relationship to the world around him, and who we are to be in relationship with all people, all creatures, even the earth itself.
And Jesus challenges lines of authority – starting with his own little group. Peter will have nothing to do with Jesus’ offer of footwashing, refusing to let their wise and holy leader do something so humble. Eventually Jesus gets him to relent, and through washing his disciples’ feet and talking about it afterward, redefines who they are. From here forward – a life that will be lived without his physical presence – they are to understand themselves, never as masters, but always as servants.
Alyce McKenzie brings this even closer to us. This wasn’t just about hierarchy or formal power, she writes, it’s about how close we will allow God-in-Christ to get to our deepest selves. Peter didn’t want Jesus handling his feet, and neither do we, “because to allow Jesus to touch our feet is to allow him to touch our will….Our feet are how we put our decisions in motion and get places, do things. We can think about doing something…but if we are going to actually show up and walk [someone’s journey with them] our feet have to be involved. To allow Jesus to cleanse our feet is to remove all that prevents us from using our feet to follow him, to scrub away our insecurities, to wash away our weariness, to buff off our bitterness.”
In this scene of humility, of intimacy, of cleansing, Jesus gives all who are willing to hear his voice and see his example a new way of being. In the same way that handwashing will never be the same for those of us who have experienced social distancing, footwashing forever changed how Christians are to understand themselves in relationship with one another, and in relationship with the world around them. This emotionally charged scene challenges what we believe about power and status and what really matters in this God-given gift of life; and these days of social distancing have confirmed the power of servanthood for all of us, no matter what our beliefs. Each of us, I hope, has been the recipient of assistance and kindness, and each of us, I hope, has done gut-checks about where and how a simple phone call could lighten the load for someone else. Jesus takes a knee, and gets the wash-water ready, and in these days when we’re confined to quarters, the truth of his loving words and selfless actions ring true.
For the gifts of service, and acts of caring, we offer our humble thanks. Amen.
Alberta Health Services – handwashing posters. https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/info/Page14957.aspx
Peterson, Eugene. The Message Bible translation, accessed at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+13&version=MSG
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church