by Tiffany Kromer
A Maundy Thursday Reflection.
1. How do you define a great leader?
Jesus gets the award for the grossest answer:
"A great leader is one who washes dirty, stinky feet."
2. How do you define love?
Again, Jesus offers the most disgusting of definitions:
"Love is washing dirty, stinky feet."
When I get a pedicure at a salon, I always think of Jesus' definition of a great leader. I look down at the person getting paid to wash and style my gross feet and '’m instantly thankful I do not have her job. She is touching my feet, working hard to smooth away the calluses, filing my nails, and dealing with me jumping every time she accidentally tickles the bottom of my feet. I can tell this is not easy for her, but she actually looks like she enjoys it and she does her job very well. She is my hero. I can honestly say that the only person that can make me do such a dirty job as touching and washing feet would be Jesus, and, well, it takes a lot of coaxing then, too.
In A.J. Jacob's book, A Year of Living Biblically, Jacob's embarks on a year-long journey of obeying the Bible as literally as possible, which includes washing his dinner guest's feet. So, he says to his friend when she comes to his door "Come in! Can I offer you food? Drink? Care to wash your feet in a bowl of water?" He writes that this always came off as creepy to his guests. And then he says "I've realized that foot washing is a surprisingly intimate and private thing, like gargling. In other words, no one's taken me up on foot washing."
If I were to do an informal poll of the congregations I've served so far in my young ministry career as a pastor, I'd say the majority of folks attending Maundy Thursday services would agree with A.J. Jacob's friends--the whole thing is a bit creepy and invasive. So what do we do with this centuries old practice of washing feet? Do we get rid of it due to the creepiness factor? Is the practice meaningless now, since the invention orthotics and moisturizing socks and Nike shoes? Something has kept churches ritually washing feet for centuries, but what is it?
But before we get t0 answering these questions, let's get back to the topic at hand: washing dirty, stinky feet. Just imagine the feet around the table the night of that last supper—the caked-on dirt, the blisters, the calluses, the smell, the ingrown toenails—all souvenirs from their long journey in ministry together.
Back in Jesus' day, it was customary for a servant to do the before-dinner foot washing. By the way, s/he is my hero. Yet, on this last supper Jesus had with his disciples, they were in for a surprise. A servant knelt down with a bucket of water next to Peter. Yet this servant was not just any servant—this servant was Jesus--the disciples' leader, mentor, teacher, the Messiah!
The disciples' eyes widened with disgusted surprise. Peter vehemently refused for Jesus to wash his feet. But Jesus did not back down. Instead, he cradled Peter’s right foot in his hands and gently poured water over it, washing, massaging, scrubbing and remembering all the places these feet had gone alongside him in ministr. These feet carried the presence of God, and Jesus was now sanctifying them, making them holy.
Dirty feet made holy.
I think it's amazing that Jesus chose washing FEET to portray his love, the love his disciples should have for one another, and what kind of leaders they should be in the owrld. Dirty, ugly, smelly, sweaty feet revealed to the disciples what it means to really love one another and lead—that no matter how great or powerful you are, you are never too great or powerful to forget about serving and loving one another.
Jesus was willing to touch, wash, clean and massage the dirt and sores and rough places of feet. It is in Jesus lowering himself to do this cringe and gag-worthy and dirty task that shows us that true love for one another and good leadership means to sacrifice your pride and comfort to take care of someone else, to enter the depths of vulnerability and gritty reality in order to show the extent of God’s love for us.
And this is the extent of God's love for us: God always willing to travel through the dirt and the muck of our lives to be with us and love us.
Now, here is the kicker, friends: In order to be effective and loving leaders, we must seek out dirty feet. We must touch dirty feet. We must wash dirty feet. However metaphorically or literally you take this mandate, it is no easy or comfortable or pretty task. This is the work of seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God. This is the work of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
I've noticed something about the lovely, courageous woman—Sasha--who lowers herself to wash and massage and style my feet at the salon down the road from my house. Sasha doesn’t have pretty hands. Her nails are cut to the cuticle. They are taken care of, but they aren’t all drawled up with pretty color. Her hands have the purpose of taking care of her customer's hands and feet. Sasha teaches us the posture of a servant leader. The hard work for others requires us to make adjustments and sacrifice accordingly in order serve others effectively.
I imagine, after a long day at the salon taking care of customer's manicure and pedicure needs, Sasha’s hands can get pretty tired, sore and stiff. In order to continue caring for others, someone else needs to care for Sasha's hands in the same way she cares for her customers’.
Imagine being with the disciples a few months after their last supper with Jesus. They no longer have Jesus in the flesh with them. They miss him and they are struggling with how to be the community Jesus taught them to be. Anxiety, fear and grief most likely gripped them from time to time. But, in the midst of real, messy life, they still had feet. And, they had each other’s feet. And, if for a second they felt lonely or weary, they could always count on that bucket of water waiting for them before dinner where a friend would wash their feet. They would then reciprocate by washing their friend’s feet. And then, they could count on wine and bread shared with friends. By doing these things, they would remember Jesus. They would remember they are loved, they are not alone, and that the world needs to know the good news of this Jesus.
And, Jesus made sure that he gave us things we could touch when he was gone---bread, wine, feet—things that would bring people together –things that remind us to love one another. And that’s why I think that the church keeps the ritual of washing feet alive—because saying "love one another" is not enough—it takes touching and seeing and doing--washing each other’s feet-- for us to know what loving one another is all about.
Therefore, as disciples seeking justice and peace in this world, we too must be willing to travel through the dirt and the muck of this world in order to show God's radical love for the world. In fact, that is what seeking justice is all about—seeking out those neglected, forgotten, dirty, worn out feet in the world and spending our time holding, pouring, washing, scrubbing, massaging God’s cleansing and healing love, grace and presence lavishly and generously.
This is the leadership and love the church needs NOW, that the world needs NOW.
NOW go and seek out and wash some dirty, stinky feet. Go on, now, courageous leader.
Tiffany Kromer is athe pastor Trinity United Methodist Church in Emmitsburg, MD in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. In her free time she loves going on adventures with her husband, play silly songs on her guitar, crochet, and playing fetch with her dog.