I can say with confidence that I have washed more feet than any Episcopal priest that I know. This is not because my previous parishes enthusiastically embraced Maundy Thursday. No, I make this claim this because I was raised as a member of the Primitive Baptist Church. In that tradition, once per month as a part of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we washed each other’s feet. I am not speaking about the pastors washing the feet of the elect. The whole church joined in this work. Well, at least the faithful who stayed after the main service concluded to share in “the Supper and Footwashing” as we used to call it.
I recall looking at my mom with pleading in my eyes when that faithful Sunday rolled around. “Can we please go home? The football game is about to start.” Before you judge me for my lack of piety, keep in mind that by this time I would have already been at church since 10:30 (9:30 if we made it to Sunday school). By the time the main service ended, we would be knocking on the door of 1:00 pm. The Lord’s Supper and footwashing, when added to the small talk that inevitably followed, would move our departure to something north of 2:00 pm. As often as not, we stayed and I endured.
The service itself was quite simple. They divided the church: the men on the left and the women on the right. Then out came bowl after bowl of water along with enough towels to supply a rather successful pool party. The rookies did not pay attention to where they sat. They did not heed rule number one of footwashing: You were required to wash the feet of the person next to you. Sitting next to one of the more “mature” members of the congregation was something of an adventure. Alabama summers can be quite warm and those church socks were not designed to reduce sweat. But we young folk had an unspoken code. On Footwashing Sunday, we stuck together making sure that our feet and socks were pristine. We also did not require excessive diligence in the washing department. A quick splash and rub were sufficient. Nonetheless, there I sat month after month, year after year washing the feet of the young and the old, hearing the words of Jesus over and over:
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. (John 13:14–16 KJV)
To be honest, I never learned to enjoy the footwashing service. I am no longer sure that I was even supposed to. Service and mutual love are hard work. Sometimes it involves the unpleasant labor of grabbing sweaty feet and saying that you are loved and valued by me, but more importantly by God. This was gospel work; it was not fun, but it was good.
It was not until I joined the Episcopal Church in my twenties that I found out that most Christians only washed feet once per year and then by the priest! Initially, I liked the Episcopal version much better. After all, who couldn’t wash feet once per year? Plus most members were too shy to come forward to have their feet washed. So, there was a sense in which the clergy were willing to humble themselves, but the congregation thought that such humility was not required. It was the best of both worlds.
Soon my experience as a Baptist betrayed me. I knew that allowing someone to serve you requires a humility and vulnerability that many of us would like to avoid. We avoid that vulnerability by making the same deal that I made with my friends when we were kids in the pews. If you put on your best socks on footwashing Sunday, I will do the same. If you pretend that you do not need my help, I will pretend that I do not need yours. We can fake it together.
But this is a lie. Jesus knew it and so do we. We need each other’s love and service. We need help and not just liturgically enacted help. We need tangible love. We need it to come first from Jesus who loved us to the end. We need it because before Jesus came everything was not okay, we had failed. We had sinned, but he can make all things new. Then we need that same love to be made real in our mutual concern for one another.
We have been given a command this night, a mandatum, that we love one another with everything that we have. Whether we remember that command ritually by washing feet once per month or annually is not the point. What matters is that we genuinely love and serve each other as Christ loved us. This is hard work, but it is good. Therefore, Give me your feet, and I will give mine, that together we might seek the face of God.