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The Scandal of Footwashing

bowltowelsmallThis past weekend I sat next to my son as he experienced his first footwashing experience. In the Brethren tradition we gather twice a year for a threefold communion (footwashing, love feast, bread and cup). Twice a year we re-enact the events detailed in John 13:1-17.

The footwashing part of the service creeps out many outsiders of the tradition (and a few insiders). It’s strange to kneel down, take somebody else’s foot, and wash it. Washing another’s foot names anxieties in us around space and position. Touching someone’s foot simultaneously signifies a violation of space. The foot is still seen as dirty. We think about toes trapped in an old dress sock that has absorbed the day’s sweat. When we touch a foot we think of all the places that person has walked. It’s dirty. Smelly. Sweaty.

With all of this in mind, I knelt down to first wash my son’s feet. Looking up into his nine-year-old eyes, I pondered, how often does he physically look down on others? What does it mean in his spiritual journey to watch his father kneel down and wash his feet? You could see the wheels turning. He would tell you the experience was “awkward.” That is definitely the case. But, if you pressed him a little further, you would realize that awkward denotes several feelings. He was embarrassed in that he felt singled out. He was ashamed of his feet being touched. He was scared of not knowing how to perform. He was angry that I made him do this. He was curious about what was happening. In short, his old man was violating a boundary emotionally and physically. I was in his space.

I explained to him that we were following the example of Jesus. Our very Lord took this posture and washed his disciples’ feet. This was a way to act like Jesus. Conceptually he understood it. As he got his feet washed and knelt down to wash the feet of his neighbor, however, a living parable was enacted that challenged the fine line between faith as intellectual assent and faith as embodiment. We are comfortable with faith as a noun (Bible studies, sermons, worship songs, creeds, confessions, statements of faith). We feel “awkward” when faith transitions into embodiment. When following Jesus moves beyond cognitive agreement to embodied response, we find ourselves nervous. The feet in this scenario represented for Miles all the anxieties and apprehensions of a faith in transition. It’s amazing that as children grow psychologically they transition from concrete to abstract thought. Our faith, in many ways, moves us the other ways as it calls us to move from abstract belief to concrete embodiment. The intersection to this developmental paradox calls us to confidence in our belief and risk in our response.

As my son knelt down and looked up at me in utter bewilderment, I knew his thoughts before he struggled to articulate them. Why would I, his loving father, make him touch someone else’s feet? In some ways, he couldn’t even begin to name his anxieties. Sunday School and Bible talks at the dinner table did not prepare him for this act. Did I really expect him, under the guise of “following Jesus,” to kneel down and touch somebody else’s feet? With a holy grit, I coached him to do more than splash water on his neighbor’s feet. I had him ask if there was a way he could pray for his neighbor. I modeled for him how to properly dry a person’s foot. I pushed him into his neighbor to offer a hug at the end. In short, I came close to sacred child abuse as I made my son step outside his comfort zone. He didn’t like it. I was stressed about it. But like teaching him to make eye contact and speak clearly when spoken to, this was an important life skill. Footwashing names a tradition of which the Barnhart family is a part. If you don’t have Brethren without footwashing and the Barnharts are Brethren, then you don’t have “Barnhart” without footwashing. This practice is constitutive of our family life in Jesus.

Miles’ anxieties are our anxieties too. It presents itself in multiple ways as we approach the basin and the towel.

  • Will the water be cold?
  • Do we reuse the same water?
  • Do I need to know my neighbor’s name?
  • What do I say as I wash their feet?
  • How do we end this exercise in discipleship?
  • Do we wash feet before the meal?
  • Do we wash hands before the meal?

In moments of faith transition from belief to embodiment, we begin with practical questions that become charged with philosophical and theological significance. Water temperature becomes an exercise in “counting the cost.” My neighbor’s name becomes the person sitting next to me whose presence demands a response. The placement of the parts of the service becomes a quest of radical obedience to the example of Jesus.

The foot cradled on our hands becomes a tangible way to embody the servant heart of Jesus. The foot connects us with biblical times. We read in scripture about moments when people were “unclean.” We write those moments off as mere ancient ignorance. Then we hold somebody’s foot in our hands and realize that the modern imagination remains tethered to those same human sensibilities. We experience a brief pause as we hold somebody’s foot. It is scandalous in a society of hand sanitizer to still participate in this practice.

We do it because the scandal makes the story real. Bible believing Christians need to have these jolting moments unless our call to discipleship gets reduced down to simply checking the boxes of right belief. Footwashing reminds us that our God doesn’t want to be believed in, he wants to be loved. Likewise, our neighbor will not know of our belief in a loving God unless that love moves from belief to embodiment. In that moment, as the warm water pours over our neighbor’s foot, we realize that footwashing makes Jesus real to both us and our neighbor.

Faith as noun becomes faith as verb around a basin and a towel.

2 comments on “The Scandal of Footwashing

  1. Ron Waters says:

    Great reflection on an important milestone in Miles’ life . . . and in our walk of faithfulness to Jesus.


  2. J. Michael says:

    Very good post! I don’t remember my 1st time participating in 3-food communion and these thoughts. I would have been 8, the next communion after my public confession of faith and baptism. We aren’t in a Brethren church now and your post reminded me of the deep significance of the 3-fold communion of my heritage and faith.


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