Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Washer

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Where does Jesus begin? The famous painting of this scene doesn't help us. Leonardo didn't know that people did not sit on chairs in that day. They reclined on one elbow, feet out, to form a fan shape around the table. John has only to lean back against Jesus' chest to ask his question. We can guess that his brother James lies on the other side, since they share the dream of becoming Jesus' right and left hand men.
James remembers the words of John the Baptizer, the greatest man to walk the earth, that even he was not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals. And now Jesus is untying his. It takes a long time, fumbling with the knots. Finally, Jesus slips James' feet into the cool water and looks up at him with deep compassion. You, my friend, will be the first of these to follow me to heaven. But when Herod's sword parts your flesh, I will be with you. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Jesus dries his feet with care.
Another man of ambition, Simon the Zealot, is perplexed as he watches the hands of his Hero scrubbing his feet. He appreciates the radical nature of Jesus' demonstration - he loves that about him - but struggles to understand what it means. What is he waiting for? More than once, crowds of thousands were ready to crown him, and Jesus walked away from the opportunity. Simon's king works hard at the dirt under his toenails. These hands say, trust me. I will wash all the hatred from your heart. Then you will rush out upon the Roman hoards and free them from their gods, their pride, their slavery - and lose your life for my gospel. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end.
It is Matthew who reclines beside Simon at the table. Lately, they have struck an odd friendship, despite their political differences. Matthew has always been a little self-conscious of his feet; they are very ticklish, and somehow Jesus knows this. Matthew squirms, and Jesus concentrates on his ankles, which are not ticklish but will one day be scarred by iron bands in a foreign prison. I would not wish those bands away for you, my friend, his hands assure him. They will remove the last of your fears until nothing on earth is of any value to you, only the stuff of heaven. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end.
Nathanael is conflicted as he realizes that Jesus will be at his feet next. Who is this man? Nazarene or Son of God? Servant or Master? He sighs. Jesus glances up, bemused, and keeps him guessing. Who am I? There is no more important question in all creation, and the answer is like a chest of gold hidden in a field. Seek me, push aside the dirt, put your back into it as you dig. As they chase you from house to house, you will know that what you have found is worth leaving all, selling all, putting all your eggs in this one basket. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Give me your other foot.
His friend Philip watches the wordless interaction and guesses at what it might mean. This is a difficult parable indeed, and he hopes for one of those rare explanations from his Rabbi. He wonders once again why Jesus sought him out that day, among all the young good-for-nothings loitering in town. Jesus takes Philip's feet in his hands and holds them for a while. He appears to be in prayer, mouthing words Philip cannot hear and could not understand anyway. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. Jesus rises to dump the basin and refill it with fresh water from the jar in the corner. Which is what he is doing with me, Philip's eyes say as they watch him.
Andrew is distracted by his brother Peter's obvious discomfort on the other side of him. Wait your turn, man. I don't always live in your shadow. See how Jesus takes my callused feet, looks at me as if to say, when did you last wash these? The Teacher is teaching something, and I don't get it either, but have patience! I would follow him anywhere. Jesus stops and traces a spot on the top of each of his feet. Andrew feels a spasm of pain as if his feet are driven to a post. Yes, even there, Jesus, I will follow you. My heart is not troubled. You have loved me to the end.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you." For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, "Not all of you are clean." Do not let your heart be troubled, Peter. I have loved you to the end.
Thomas is a private person, and not happy to have anyone - even Jesus - touch his feet. He plunges his feet into the basin like a man throwing himself in front of a cart. He splashes both Peter and Jesus. They all laugh, Peter a little wryly, and Thomas relaxes into Jesus' capable hands. You will travel far on these feet, my friend, to a land you have only heard about, a land with more gods than people to worship them. You will be a small lamp in a world of darkness, a darkness that will pierce your soul. But do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. I will go there with you, and there I will stay.
James the Smaller, Little James, not a Son of Thunder but more inclined to quiet meditation, is not overlooked by Jesus. The friendship between them is evident, and with him, Jesus is gentle but intentional. James grows in stature by the very presence of his Master. I am a bruised reed, and you have not broken me. I am a smoldering wick, but you have never smothered me. I believe in you, Jesus, because you first believed in me, which was the kind of love I needed most. I wish that I could dare ask to wash your feet, as you have mine, but I know my place and cannot match your servitude. My heart is untroubled. You have loved me to the end.
I should have sat next to the Zealot, Jude muses. The suspense is killing me. What is that smell? My namesake beside me is sweating like a horse and shaking. He smells like fear, the strange little man; I have never understood him. Jesus seeks Jude's attention, finds it and loses it again. He hums a tuneless melody as he works on his feet, and Jude listens, drawn to the sound. It is not flattery to call you one of my sheep, the melody says. Hear my voice, know my voice, follow no other, seek no other, worship no other. Jude is focused now, as if memorizing Jesus' face, his melody, his presence. Do not let your heart be troubled, because I have loved you to the end. Don't forget.
The distress of Judas is apparent to those near him. He trembles as the basin is set in front of him, and Jesus waits, looking troubled himself. As he takes Judas' feet in his hands, Jesus begins to weep, his shoulders heaving and tears falling into the basin. Judas stops trembling and pulls his feet from Jesus' grasp, tucking them still wet under his cloak. There is an appeal in Jesus' face that rips Judas apart and assaults his resolve. But Judas' heart remains frozen, cold and hard as the thirty pieces of silver in his pouch. Fear turns to anger as bitter as myrrh. Jesus sighs. I know why your heart is troubled, Judas. I have loved you to the end. I will miss you always.
I know why you choose to be beside me this evening, John, the disciple whom I love. The water swirls around John's feet. Jesus takes his time. You will find it hardest tomorrow when you see me suspended between earth and heaven, and watch my life-giving blood flow down for you. I want you to grow to be an old man, John. Your children will be as the stars in the sky, and you will be a father to sons and daughters from every nation. You have heard me, you have seen me with your eyes, you have looked upon me and touched me with your hands. You will tell of me, again and again and again, long after your days. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have loved you to the end. I am love.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

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