Sometimes I wonder why foot washing is not practiced more widely in the church today. Certainly, I understand concerns about it being a bit too personal and potentially awkward—touching someone else’s feet, or having someone else touch your own feet. Our feet tend not to be the most flattering parts of our bodies, in terms of aroma as well as overall aesthetics. Why would I want anyone else to touch my dirty, smelly feet, which hardly see the light of day? Yet not only is there strong historical precedent for this practice among God’s people, but, even more, it is also something that Jesus commands his followers to do. Is foot washing, by and large, the forgotten command of Jesus?
It is, in fact, a clear command of Jesus. After he washed his disciples’ feet, the Lord said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).
The times I’ve participated in worship services with foot washing, I have been blessed by the experience. They have been among the most meaningful worship experiences that I’ve ever had. Still, I can identify with Peter, who wanted to excuse himself from foot washing on the night of the Last Supper. He was reluctant to have Jesus wash his feet, and he would have been more comfortable not participating, that is, until he learned what it was truly about. On that fateful night, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe (thus revealing his true identity—his heart—as the Lord who serves and gives of himself for others), and tied a towel around himself. As St. John tells us, “Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (13:5-9)
The traditional time to observe foot washing in worship, Maundy Thursday, is coming up once again. Especially this time of year, pastors and lay people alike would do well to remember and heed the words of Jesus about this practice: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”