Dinner's Ready; Wash Your Feet!

Sermon Preached on Maundy Thursday
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“Dinner’s ready! Wash your hands!” This was the familiar call to supper in my childhood home. The call was typically followed by the three of us – my brother, my sister, and me – pushing and shoving our way to the faucet and the soap in the bathroom and then scrambling to the dinner table. I’m guessing Emily Post would not have been impressed by this chaotic scene! Nonetheless, it was ritual and it was home.

On Maundy Thursday as we gather to remember the last family supper which Jesus shared with his disciples, we hear a similar call, but with a twist – “Dinner’s ready! Wash your feet!” But the chaotic scene of my childhood home is likely not to be repeated here. For most of us, there will be some reluctance. The mad dash to the basin of water will likely be missing from our ritual. And, in all fairness, we should be a bit uncomfortable by this unusual call to supper. In the first place, most of us – let’s be honest – have pretty dirty feet. Alright, I’ll speak only for my own feet: crammed inside of socks and shoes all day, my feet can get pretty smelly. But even beyond the feet themselves – even the cleanest of feet with neatly painted toenails - there is something else that causes some discomfort, some embarrassment at this unusual call. Allowing another person to touch our feet is a fairly intimate act. I’m thinking, for example, of that other story in John’s gospel in which Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”[1]. Allowing someone to care for our feet with tenderness and love requires a certain willing vulnerability.

In the reading from John’s gospel, the awkwardness of the foot washing moment is made clear by the exchange Jesus has with Peter. The reading provides us with an image of Jesus going from place to place around the table with his basin of water and a towel, washing the feet of each disciple. But when he gets to Peter, Peter declares, “Lord, you will never wash my feet!”[2] Now, from a purely cultural point of view, Peter is right to be shocked. After all, it was not uncommon to be a guest in someone’s home and to have your feet washed. But the one doing the washing would never be the host; instead, it would be the servant. So, Peter’s disgust that Jesus, his Lord, would stoop to such an unclean task reserved for the most common of folk is not at all surprising – perhaps more surprising is that the other disciples have not reacted similarly.

So tonight’s call, “Dinner’s ready, wash your feet!” makes most of us uncomfortable. At St. Mark’s we try to soften the discomfort a bit by encouraging you to at least permit us to wash your hands, to experience at least a bit of what that Last Supper ritual might have been like for those disciples. But, I wonder if some of the discomfort is precisely the point. Jesus tells Peter that the reason he is washing their feet is to set an example for them of how they ought to care for one another – by washing one another’s feet. By humbling themselves, by emptying themselves of all pride or arrogance, of all preconceived notions of power and might, by washing one another’s feet, by going to the most unclean places, the disciples then, you and me now, love as Jesus commanded us to love.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”[3].
If we experience the foot-washing as a metaphor for reaching out into the unclean places in our world, of touching the untouchables, of loving the unlovable, then perhaps our discomfort takes on new meaning. The Rev. Glyn “Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk - former Rector of St. Francis in the Fields in Malvern, Pennsylvania – wrote a reflection on the Stations of the Cross. Melnyk begins her meditation on the Sixth Station (Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus) with these imagined words of Jesus:

“While others stand mute with tear-stained faces,
                       or turn away in disgust or distain [sic.],

She finds the strength to step into my path;

             and using her veil to clean my face;

                        offers what comfort she can.

How many bloody faces has she cleaned?

             How many wounded broken bodies has she nursed?

How is it that she, alone among so many,

             overcomes her dread and fear

                        learning to touch the untouchable,

                        to love the unloved,

                        and to defy the tyranny of caste, class and

Melnyk includes the following prayer-response for the gathered congregation:

“Can it be true, Jesus, that when I touch another,

              I touch you?

Do you really abide in the poor and broken --

              the sick and the dying?

How hard it is to understand

             that I serve at your altar in hospice and soup

             as surely as in cathedral, chapel and choir!

Teach me how to use my hands to heal,

            my heart to love, my body to serve.

Reveal my fear and disgust for what they are;

            that in being healed,

                          I will no longer fear healing others.”[3]

Reveal my fear and disgust for what they are; that in being healed, I will no longer fear healing others. My brothers and sisters in Christ, dinner’s ready; come let your feet or hands be washed. Allow yourself this vulnerability in this place at this time so that looking into the vulnerable face of another, vulnerable as you are now, you might see Jesus, might recognize the Christ, and might love as Jesus first loved you.

[1] John 12:3.
[2] John 13:8.
[3] John 13:34-35.
[4] Full text of The Rev. Glyn Lorraine Ruppe-Melnyk’s Stations of the Cross can be found online, accessed 18 April 2011.