The Maundy Thursday service with communion and footwashing is one of my favorite worship experiences of the liturgical year. As parishioners walk down the aisle to the front of the church with all sorts and conditions of bare feet, it feels like a time of shared vulnerability and humility. We often sing one of my favorite hymns “Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love.” Baby-soft young feet, well-pedicured polished feet, and gnarled, old, lived-in toes plunge into the same basin. Adults and children take turns at being washers and being the washed. Since this is not a weekly occurrence at church, parishioners have been prepared with articles in the newsletter and explanations about the procedure at the beginning of the service. It is a well-choreographed evening with advance preparation by clergy and lay leaders and a Mr. Rogers kind of reassurance for our comfort.
A few years ago I went to a spirituality and dance conference where most of the people did not know each other. At the opening session, the leaders announced that we were going to have a footwashing. I was horrified and thought: “This is not the way to start a conference. People do not understand what this is all about. A footwashing is too personal, too intimate an activity for an opening event. Don’t these leaders know anything about protocol and about not scaring off the introverts?”
We broke into groups of three. One person had her feet in the water, one person washed and the other person dried. I went into this activity with arrogance and resistance. “I don’t even know these people,” I thought. When it came time to have my feet washed, I complied. When the washer finished scooping handfuls of warm water on my feet, a woman on her knees wrapped my feet in a big towel. She held both feet on her lap and proceeded to dry them. With almost sacramental attention she moved the towel between each toe making sure there was no remaining moisture. With her careful and unhurried tenderness my resistance caved and I started to cry. Who but a loving parent would take the time to dry the toes of a child like this? Who but a loving, father-mother God would show up unbidden to shatter my narrow-minded assumptions and to give me needed care and attention in the form of a person with a towel.