Imaginations of the Heart: The Washing of Feet
[For a pdf of this imagination, click here.]
It was the most terrible and wonderful thing. In the context of everything else that happened I suppose it was almost nothing but for me it was almost everything.
We were in Jerusalem for the feast again. Jesus liked to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem and this was the third time we’d shared it with him. Passover with Jesus was a hoot! Such fun, such games, such laughter! But serious, too. Getting to the very heart of our liberation journey somehow. With Jesus everything seemed intensified, the bitter herbs were more bitter, the bread was sweeter, the lamb more succulent, the wine more full-bodied. It was as if your senses were multiplied: every taste, every sound, every gesture, seemed more real, more full of meaning. And yet at the same time it was just chaotic fun. Wonderful.
Jesus was always the host of course and his words, particularly his improvisations over the bread and wine always gave us food for thought. So, you see, we were really well fed—body, mind and spirit!
But this time was different. It was the same room and pretty much the same crowd: the twelve, of course, and the women, and some of the others—but not all because the room, large as it was, couldn’t accommodate everyone. That caused some disappointments, you can be sure.
Anyway, we arrived and the room was already set out, nicely decorated with some Spring flowers and the table was brimming with food: bread, cheese, wine, a huge pot of lamb and much more. So we sat down and gently jostled for position—everyone liked to be close to Jesus But there was no malice in it any more. Over the years we’d got used to accepting things the way they were. There was no way Jesus would value one of us more than the others though he was closer friends with some than others but that’s only natural. I think, at first, that some of them were a bit envious of me. He kind of took to me from the beginning—I think he was sorry for me, really!
What is it they say? ‘Open mouth, put foot in’? that’s me. I blurt things out before I think them through. Stupid, insensitive, gauche: that’s what lots of people call me. But Jesus is different. He always finds the good and builds it up. “You’re honest and open-hearted, Simon,” he said to me, “and I like that in a man.” No-one had ever spoken to me like that before and it felt good. I know I’m not the brightest of us, not clever like John, but ‘open-hearted and honest’—that’s not bad is it?
So we were laughing and joking as usual but this time there was an undercurrent. We all knew that this was different. Indeed, I think we all knew, deep down, that this was the last time. And so everything was heightened even more. The laughter was just a bit more raucous, the solemnity just a little bit more serious. And then Jesus sat and lifted up the bread. He gave thanks and broke it and passed it round to us. As we passed it on he spoke with a seriousness and depth which we had never heard before. “This bread,” he said, “is my body.” And the silence in the room grew so thick that no-one could have moved even if they’d wanted to.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever eats this bread, the bread of my flesh, will live forever. My body is broken for you. Eat this in memory of me.”
And he put his piece of bread in his mouth and so we all had to follow suit. I cannot describe to you how it felt to chew on that morsel, I wanted to spit it out. I wanted to swallow it whole. I wanted to chew it, it savour it, for ever. Never had bread tasted so sweet, so sour. I didn’t have a clue what Jesus’ words meant for us and deep down I understood them perfectly. We just stayed there in silence for an age. Even I had nothing to say.
And then Jesus rose from the table…
Jesus rose from the table and took off his coat. ‘Too hot?’ I asked myself in surprise—and was then surprised that I could feel surprise after what had just happened. For the evening chill was creeping in and although it wasn’t yet cold it certainly wasn’t hot. Every eye was on Jesus and I’d say that a deep expectant hush fell on the room except that the room was so deep with silence that there didn’t seem space for any more.
We watched with anxious eye as he took up a large towel and wrapped it around his waist, the ends dangling down. A growing awareness was dawning on us. We knew what this meant, though of course it could not be so. Then, from a corner of the room, where I’d not noticed them before, he took up a bowl and a jug of water. As he poured the water, slightly steaming in the evening chill, from jug to bowl, all doubt was dispelled.
Then kneeling—kneeling, I say!—before Joanna he gently took off her sandals, lifted each foot tenderly into the bowl and slowly purged them clean with his bare hands. Then he lifted each one and dried it with a caress of the towel as he smiled up at her; a smile of pure grace.
I was outraged! Furious and disgusted. This was wrong on so many levels. Firstly, it was as if he’d just made love to her in front of our eyes—and she a married woman! It’s not just my mouth which is speechless with shock, my brain is paralysed too and I’m in a kind of fugue with the same thoughts racing round and round: ‘How dare he?’ ‘This is so wrong.’ ‘This cannot be happening.’
But I keep watching because next to Joanna is Thomas and Jesus washes his feet in exactly the same sensual—I have to say it: erotic!—way as he did Joanna’s. and that is even worse! Though funnily enough it also makes it better. And so he continues round the table treating each one the same—and all of them accepting it without any protest!
But as he continues my mind starts to unfreeze and I realise that my horror has a much deeper component. The real reason this is so wrong is because it’s blasphemy! This is Jesus, the nearest thing to the face of God that I will see in my lifetime, and he is behaving like a common servant. It’s not right, it’s against the proper order of things and it should not be happening!
Yes, he’s talked to us about coming to serve but we’ve come to know that his service to us is to lead us into God’s kingdom; to invite us to share with him in bringing that kingdom to others. He’s served us by his presence, by the bright light of his being, by his beauty and by his awesome scary power. But not this. This is demeaning; this is unworthy of him. He’s gone too far this time and I will have no part of it.
And then I realise that he is standing in front of me…
Jesus is standing in front of me, the bowl in his hand. He looks down at me. “Peter?” he says. Sometimes I love it when he calls me the rock, his rock. But now it seems to mean something different: Peter the rock-headed, Peter the stone hearted. I play for time: “Lord, you want to wash my feet?” Stupid question. I know it. He knows it. He’s standing in front of me with a bowl and a towel. He’s washed everyone else, so of course he wants to wash me—honest, open-hearted me. But I don’t feel that way at present. My gut is shrinking within my belly. My heart is pounding, my mouth is dry and my face is flushing redder and redder.
I dare not speak; even I dare not speak. If I do, things might be broken which could never be repaired. So I stare at him as if wishing for an answer to my question which needs no answering. But he does answer. Not that question but the one I didn’t even know I was asking. “You don’t understand now what I am doing.” Too right there, Lord! I don’t. “But later on you will understand.”
Oh, we’re playing the trust game again, are we? Well I’ve trusted him before—there was the water thing, for instance—so why is this so hard? He is my Lord. Of course it must be right or he wouldn’t be doing it.
But that’s the thing: he is my Lord. I should be washing his feet, not he mine. (And suddenly, fleetingly, I am reminded of stories I’ve heard of John’s reaction when Jesus came to him for baptism—but that was different.) this just isn’t right and I cannot permit it. Surely he will respect me for standing on my principles?
“Lord, you will never wash my feet.” Blimey! That’s said it now. Is that open-hearted and honest enough for you? Suddenly I realise that the whole room is watching and all the conversation is hushed. Oh bloody hell! The centre of attention again. Why is it always me? Why can’t I just go along with the crowd and blend in? well, it’s a bit late for that now.
Jesus is looking at me with one of his half smiles; the ones where you never know if they’re going to dissolve into laughter or fade away into something deeply serious. This one fades away: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
And suddenly all sorts of things start to fall into place. For a start it’s not Jesus who’s got things upside down, it’s me. What I thought was my humility was actually my pride. I was too proud to let him serve me. It’s like a kick in the stomach. I am winded and bruised. How could I have been so vain.
But there’s more. Because he is my Lord, any washing from Jesus will be more, much more, than a washing from anyone else. To have him oh so gently cleanse my limbs will also wash away the dirt from my soul. How could I ever thought of refusing that? Suddenly I am aware of how dirty—filthy—my soul is and I desperately want to be clean and the words of the psalm come to me: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow and I cry out, “Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head also!”
Jesus laughs. It’s one of his, ‘O Simon, Simon, what are we going to do with you?’ laughs and I know that everything’s going to be alright. “It is sufficient that I wash your feet.” And he kneels before me. His hands are so gentle and yet so firm. As he works them into my tired grimed feet I feel a lightness spreading through my whole body, an ecstatic union with the holy, and I don’t think I have ever been happier.
Then tenderly he dried each foot and it was as if he were kissing them, as a mother kisses her children to sleep; and I was content…
And yes, later—a long time later—I did understand. But that is another story.