In the nine years I have been at Messiah, one of the greatest gifts for me personally is to walk with people in their last days. It is an honor to be invited into this most private and vulnerable time. People are full of worry for their loved ones, regret at not seeing children or grandchildren grow up, questions come up about God and the bad cards they had been dealt, but also inspiring witnesses of trust and faith in the midst of their pain.
For the most fortunate, there are dedicated caregivers, usually a spouse or an adult child, but sometimes a close friend. These people give days, months even years of their lives for a person they love passionately. They do things for them that most of us would shrink from doing for a stranger, cleaning wounds, wiping bottoms, showering and bathing, feeding, tolerating mood swings that can cause almost hateful things to come out of the mouth of the one who is sick, and then reassuring this same person when they get fearful or full of regret.
I often hear two things. From the caregiver, they tell me they would do nothing else. For them, these acts of love are just a small token of what they had received. From the one being cared for, they are always thankful, but this is coupled with discomfort even anger that they have to be cared for like this. I understand this mixed reaction. Few of us want our daughters or sons to clean our soiled clothes, dress us, or bathe us. Nearly, all of us would appreciate their gift while simultaneously uncomfortable while it is being given.
You hear this discomfort in Peter’s voice, when Jesus kneels and begins to bathe his battered and tired feet. Lord, I need this but I don’t want this. Jesus reprimands him, but with love, telling him in so many words sometimes we refuse the thing we need the most. Maybe, Jesus is telling him not to let his pride and self reliance get in the way of a good gift of grace. Like a wife of a husband dying of cancer, Jesus loves Peter and kneeling at his feet and washing them is an opportunity to show that love, not a burden to be endured.
In the book of John, this foot washing happens at the beginning of an important night. Jesus has gathered his disciples for a final meal before the traumatic and horrifying days ahead, which will be full of betrayal, humiliation, torture, tears and death. In the following days, his two most trusted disciples, Peter and Judas will betray him. But, Jesus’ primary concern is not how the disciples will abandon him. Instead, he seems to regret that he will abandon them, orphan them, and leave them.
If they are to survive without him, they will do so only by loving each other as sacrificially as he has loved them. Mutual love will be their greatest gift as they wait for the resurrection. By washing their feet, he is equipping them, showing them how to love each other when he is gone. Baptism has cleansed us from our past. Foot washing will cleanse us for what we have yet encountered. This is the role of the church in our lives. We are called to love each other as family. To take care of each other without thought as an adult daughter would carefully bathe her dying mother.
If it is difficult for us to let our closest friend comfort us when we are hurting, how much more difficult is it to let our brother and sister in Christ? Pride, a crippling self reliance that keeps us from living life, a needless fear of burdening someone else who has offered to help, a vain embarrassment that someone should see us naked emotionally or actually. For these reasons we reject the hands of Christ that reach out to us when we need a ride to church on Sunday morning, someone to stay overnight in our house when we are sick, a trip to the grocery or pharmacy when we are recovering. We deny the gift that Jesus left for us in his absence when we deny these offers from each other.
Tonight, as an exercise in trusting the community of Christ that Jesus left for us in his absence, I would encourage you to come forward and have your feet washed. It is uncomfortable to have someone you respect, even honor kneel and serve you, holding a part of your body that is normally covered up. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor. Implicit in that command is to let people love us. Until the last day, we are all we have to fortify us in a world where the currency of love is not honored. Tonight, let our church leaders help you practice the humbling act of letting someone care for you.