A rare, uncomfortable ritual

April 1, 2010

Tonight is the one service of the year in which many churches practice
footwashing. Others don’t do it at all, despite the fact that after
washing Peter's feet Jesus says, "You also ought to wash one another's feet."

Perhaps
we're uncomfortable with the intimacy of the act and the humility
required to be served by our fellow believers. When I serve another
person, I feel like a good Christian who loves her neighbor. When
someone else serves me, I am reminded that I am no better than anyone
else.

Like Peter—we are so often like Peter—we are taken aback
that a Christian brother or sister would wash our feet. Had Jesus
commanded, "Peter, wash my feet," I suspect Peter would have done it
gladly. But the other way around?

I experienced something like
Peter's surprise when I was 18 and studying in Nazareth, Ethiopia. I was
staying with a family, members of the Mennonite church body there, and I
was beginning to learn about power dynamics between churches in the
global North and those in the global South.

When I arrived at the
family's home, I had walked about a mile on the dusty Nazareth streets
wearing sandals. As I stepped into the home, my host sister, Hannah,
invited me in and asked me to sit down. She brought out a basin of
water, and I noticed that the dust had covered my feet. "She must be
upset at the mess I'm making, and want me to clean my feet," I thought,
embarrassed.

Hannah explained that she would be honored to wash
my feet. I tried to protest. I wanted to show my respect for Ethiopians
as my equals; they didn't have to serve me. But she insisted, and washed
not only my feet, but also my legs. She demonstrated, in the most
powerful way, that she was my equal as a Christian sister.

Our
congregation shares a building with two other congregations. On World
Communion Sunday, the three churches worshiped together. The Church of
the Brethren congregation has traditionally done footwashing on that
particular Sunday. When the other worship planners and I told our
Mennonite congregation that this would be part of the service, we
received mixed reactions. Some were excited, others confused. Some said
they would not participate. This from Mennonites, who often elevate
service above other virtuous acts.

We decided to include
handwashing stations for those who preferred the less intimate practice.
In the end, most of the worshipers from our congregation did not
participate. It was humbling for me to be unable to persuade more
congregants to take part in this powerful Christian act of love for one
another.

What stops us from receiving the blessing Christ says we will receive if we do as he did to Peter?