By Reverend Dr. Fontella Irons.
“So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
John 13:14 (NRSV)
Father, we come to you in the name of Jesus asking that you might grant us access to your divine will for this encounter. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
I recall the first time that I was permitted the honor of washing another person’s feet. It happened during my first year in seminary. I had signed up to be an “overnight helper” once a week for our seminary pastor. Since my visit to the seminary and subse- quent enrollment, I had said to myself: “As soon as I get the chance, she is going to be the first person that I sit and talk with about whatever she wants to discuss. I’m just going to sit and listen until she kicks me out.”
I never really got that chance as I had imagined, but God had something much more beautiful in the plan. Early in the second semester of my first year, my pastor was released from the hospital into home hospice care. During my first visit as her overnight Friday helper, she told me that she had been on her way to the seminary in 1985 as a Master of Divinity student when she found out that she had breast cancer. She deferred enrollment for one year. After successful surgery and a period of recovery, she was able to enter Union in 1986. Cancer remained in remission for the next fourteen years. That changed in 2000.
She underwent a combination of chemo and radiation therapies for much of the year. In the early part of 2001, her doctors told her that cancerous tumors were through- out her body, including her liver. She was released to home hospice care shortly there- after. Her home was an apartment at the seminary, which was the case for most of Union’s students, faculty and administrators. It was during this first visit that the pastor shared this aspect of her story with me. That reprisal ended abruptly when, to my shock, my pastor removed the oxygen mask for her face, sat up, placed her feet on the floor, looked into my eyes, and spoke these words: “They sent me home to die, but I came home to live.”
At that point, she got out of bed, took my arm, and walked me throughout her apartment. She pointed out treasures disguised as ordinary trinkets. All of this took place on my first visit; it was during my third visit (three weeks later) that I “washed” my pas- tor’s feet.
I arrived at 7:15 p.m. For the first time, the entire apartment was quiet. I called out “hello.” There was no response. I walked around to my pastor’s bedroom and found her sound asleep. I stood at the threshold; she continued to sleep. I walked back into the liv- ing room to place my backpack in a chair. She continued to sleep. I surmised that perhaps there were no visitors due to the day – Maundy Thursday. Also, for the first time, I was- n’t staying over on a Friday night. The previous Fridays had been very busy with visitors. This night was different.
The apartment was very still. Again, I wondered if the silence had something to do with where we were on the liturgical calendar. Eventually, I heard my pastor stirring in her bed. She, to my great pleasure, asked for something to eat. After dinner, I asked her
about her legs. I wanted to know if the swelling had gone down. She said she thought they were about the same, but she asked me to check. I thought her legs looked a bit more swollen than they had one the previous Friday. As I looked at her legs, I noticed her feet. She must have been watching me because she broke the silence by saying, “Rub them for me, please.” I replied: “Of course. Would you mind if I used a bit of lotion?” She said, “Please.” I took off my ring and watch, rolled up my shirtsleeves, grabbed a folding chair and positioned it as the foot of her bed. Then, I walked over to her dresser and selected a bottle of lotion. With the lotion in hand, I sat down at the foot of her bed, removed her socks, and went to work. I “washed” her feet – massaging them with lotion – for about twenty minutes. As I rubbed her swollen feet, I thought about the foot-washing service that I had missed out on the night before at my church. Suddenly, perhaps for the first time, I gained some understanding of why Jesus tells his followers “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14, NRSV). But what does the story of Jesus’ washing the feet of his followers say about how we might live today in light of its message? I will give some attention to NT scholar- ship on John, commonly referred to as The Fourth Gospel, as a way of unveiling more probing this question.
According to Gail O’Day, the author of John tells his story by interweaving narra- tive, dialogue, and discourse to create dramatic scenes. Literary devices include frequent use of irony and symbolism, even as the narrator comments directly on a story (e.g. 7:39; 8:27; 11:51-52; 12:33; 18:32; 19:35). Scholars commonly divide the book’s twenty-one chapters into two parts: chapters 1-12, referred to as “the Book of Signs,” and chapters 13-20, referred to as “the Book of Glory.” Most view John 21 as an appendix or second
ending. For O’Day, two lines from the Prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1) and “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:4) are the two claims upon which the rest of the Gospel is built: Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. But after Jesus’ death, says O’Day, the idea of his life as the rev- elation of God becomes the crisis for the writer of the Gospel and his community. The reason is that Jesus’ death marked the end of the incarnation:
It is impossible to overstate the crisis that the believing community faced as a result of Jesus’ death. The shape and scope of this crisis can be illus- trated by looking at the conversation between Jesus and Peter at 6:67- 68. . . . At Jesus’ death, the disciples faced the inversion of the situation proposed at 6:67: Jesus is leaving them, and Peter’s question becomes even more poignant, ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ Is Jesus’ death the end of his ‘words of eternal life’?
What O’Day refers to as the “genius” in John is the solution, the Paraclete (the transliter- ation of the Greek noun paraklētos), the noun the writer used to speak of the Spirit. In the Gospel of John, O’Day argues, the Paraclete means that revelation does not end with Je- sus’ death; it is ongoing through the Spirit/Paraclete. Finally, I will add that the scene at John 13: 14 takes place just before Jesus predicts his betrayal at vv. 21-30. Then, Jesus gives the “new command” at vv. 31-35. That passage is followed by another prediction of betrayal at vv. 36-38. In a sense, the foot washing takes within a chapter that seems move in a cycle – from love to betrayal to love to betrayal. The whole message of John comes to a crucial resting place in chapter 13. The question is this: Which in the cycle of “love- betrayal-love” will win?” To me, that’s still the question and the message of the foot washing. Love, no matter what the context, has the power to heal.
The story of my “washing” my pastor’s feet is not the story of glamorous service. How could washing another’s feet be glamorous? It is not the kind of service that results
in headlines; in fact, this type of service scared me. I was asked to spend the entire night at the bedside of a truly gifted servant of Christ. Shouldn’t she deserve the best? Those who were gifted at ministry? That, in my opinion, wasn’t me. I was still trying to figure out how I’d ended up in seminary, so how on earth could I be suitable for such a moment in her life? I did not try to answer those questions back then, I just tried to do my very best to be present for her. But that is still the calling for all of us. We must ask God to show us how to be present for one another, especially at this very challenging moment in time.
With God as our guide through prayer, each one of us can discern what our role is as we seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. I my prayer for you is that should Christ led you to the foot of your neighbor’s bed, and if you willingly answer that calling, then we all will “live” and live victoriously.
God bless you. Amen.