A number of years ago I tried to reinstitute footwashing at a Maundy Thursday worship service where I was pastor. Even though it was a Mennonite Church, which was part of a larger Anabaptist tradition that has traditionally practiced footwashing, in this congregation footwashing had not historically been a part of its worship practice. During the time when the people were to go to rooms set aside for footwashing a pair of old feet came up to me and in harmony grumbled in a muffled voice through their shoes, "Footwashing is ridiculous. It's not something we need done to us today. That's something they did way back in Jesus' day, when we used to go around half naked in sandals, walked on dusty roads, got filthy, and needed a daily scrubbing. Today, all God's chillin' got shoes! We ain't strippin ' and takin' a bath in front of God and everybody else!"
The feet of the apostle Peter could have said "Amen!" to those two old feet. Peter's feet were also a pair of reluctant doggies! The feet of Peter showed their hesitancy to get washed during a Passover meal Jesus was having with his twelve disciples. Knowing that God had placed all things in Jesus' hands, he stood on his feet, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around his waist. The dark room was bathed in the golden glow of oil lamps looking like a Rembrandt painting. All the eyes of the disciples were fixed upon Jesus as he moved about the upper room like a mime in slow motion. The gurgling of water broke the silence as it splashed in a basin. Stooping before the reclining disciples, the hands of Jesus began washing the feet of the disciples.
When Jesus' came to Peter his feet spoke up in a questioning voice, "Lord, are you going to wash us?" Jesus said, "You don't get what I'm doing right now, but you will later." One of Peter's feet protested, "You will never wash me!" The other chimed in, "Me neither!" Like twins speaking the same thought at the same time Peter's feet said, "Lord, washing us is the menial task of slaves. No way are we going to have you, our Lord and Master, scrubbing us." Jesus responded to those tentative tootsies, "Well, If I don't wash you two, you don't have any part with me." A chorus broke out from Peter's head, hands, and feet, "Wash me, Master! No, wash me first! Wash me, Lord!" Jesus looked at them all and said, "You are all clean and don't need to be washed, just the feet, and maybe somebody else in this room." The feet of Judas shuffled off into the dark night.
Some feet that gather on Maundy Thursday may come reluctantly for a cleansing ritual, if at all. Some feet may be whisper to themselves, "We took a bath just last night, why do need to do this." Another embarrassed doggy may curl up inside a shoe trying to hide a bunion or hammer toe grumbling, "You ain't gettin' me outta here." Two little puppies in the back are wondering, "I just don't get what this is all about." While other feet may dance about singing, "Wash me! Wash me!"
Long ago on a night like this evening Jesus stepped forward and said, "Don't you know what I have done for you? If I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you should wash one another's feet. I have set an example for you, that you should do as I have done to you. The feet of the servant are no greater than the feet of the master, nor the beautiful feet of messenger, who brings good news, greater than the one who sent them. Do you get it, now?"
Footwashing is not about cleaning feet. It is a symbolic ritual, a performed pantomime of Jesus' humble, self-giving love. In this dramatic act we symbolically share in Christ's ministry to others; a ritual to practice for the performance of self-giving love we are to carry out in real life with hands, feet, head, and heart. In footwashing we once again remind our whole body of Christ's sacrificial love and faithful witness. For his body was so willing to give itself away that his knees bent low to wash other's feet, his back gave itself to the whip, his head wore a crown of thorns, his hands and feet offered themselves to the cruel spikes out of fierce love and excruciating faithfulness to the truth.
When our feet are splashed with water, we remember Christ's love and we ritually perform the movements of self-giving love and wholehearted commitment to the gospel truth with our bodies, practicing to be servants of one another. "O feet, O hands, O heart and mind, if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."