About a month before my 24th birthday, I was starting my second year of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I got sent to the next town over from mine to spend the night with a family there, to see whether I thought they would be a good host family for the new volunteer who was coming. They turned out to be really sweet, lovely people who welcomed me with open arms. Esmeralda, the mom, made a delicious meal for us, while her husband Manyango told me all about their community, Jánico. They were curious to get to know me as well – and when they found out that my birthday was less than a month away, they insisted that I come back and celebrate with them.
I thought that was nice, but I didn’t really think anything would come of it. But then, a few days before my birthday, I get a call from Esmeralda: “When are you coming to Jánico so we can have your birthday party?”
“Oh! Uh… how about Wednesday?”
“Perfect! Wednesday it is. Manyango will come pick you up.”
So Wednesday rolls around and Manyango comes to pick me up on his motorcycle, and we set off for Jánico. Now, there are a couple of important details to note here. One is that Manyango and I could have gone around to Jánico by the highway, but instead, we decided to take the back way: a little rutted dirt road that’s about half the distance of the main road. The other important detail is that my birthday happens to fall right in the middle of rainy season in the Dominican Republic – it rains every single day from about 2 in the afternoon until well into the evening.
Suffice it to say that our quick, 15 minute drive to Jánico turned into an over three hour ordeal, as we got completely stranded in a river of mud. By the time we finally made it to their house, both Manyango and I were completely soaked and splattered with mud from head to toe. Esmeralda met us at the door with a big basin of clean water. Before I could even say a word, she knelt down, unbuckled my sandals, and literally started washing my feet.
It was one of the most awkward, uncomfortable, and weirdly beautiful moments of my life. I barely knew this woman, and she barely knew me. Yet here she was, washing me, touching my feet in a shockingly intimate way. I mean, none of my friends, nor even any of the people I’d dated, had ever touched my feet like that. It was a very vulnerable moment. And it was a gift that was hard to receive, because I knew how gross my feet were, even apart from the mud. I walked everywhere in sandals and flip-flops, so my feet were hard and calloused – and God knows what kind of collection of fungal infections my feet had picked up, living down there in the tropics
And it was hard to receive this gift because I did not feel like I had come to the Dominican Republic to receive anything at all. I had come to serve, not to be served. In fact, this was a challenge that I really struggled with all throughout my time in the DR. I was raised to work hard and to fend for myself and to give back by serving others. But living on my own in another country, I often found myself having to depend on others to help me a lot more than I was comfortable with.
I can imagine that many of you would have felt the same way in my shoes (okay, flip-flops). I know you’re all good, hard-working, Lutheran church people. I have seen how quickly the volunteer signup sheets fill up around here – I have watched you roll towels and stuff backpacks like pros, and I have seen the way you all help out around the church without fanfare, without feeling the need to be recognized for it. It’s all part of our small town, rural Nebraska culture; it’s just what we do.
But the flip side of that is that it’s hard to ask for help when we need it, let alone accept it. In the wake of the flooding here in Nebraska, one of the biggest challenges to disaster relief hasn’t been a lack of resources, but rather the fact that so many people are unwilling to admit that they need help. Many people are either too proud or too embarrassed to ask for help – because in our culture, it’s often considered a sign of weakness or even a sign of failure to admit that we need help from other people. We are taught that being mature and adult and responsible means that we never rely on anyone else for anything.
And, if we’re honest, I think that receiving help, that being served by someone else, makes us feel vulnerable in a way that we just don’t like. Our acts of service and giving to others – even when they are done out of love – often have the effect of keeping us at a safe distance from other people. When we are the ones serving and giving, we feel successful and confident and in control. It takes humility to accept help, to admit that we are dependent on other people, just as they depend on us, whether we like it or not. An act like having our feet washed completely closes the distance between us and the person washing us. It takes away our sense of control and it cracks us open to relating to other people in a new and vulnerable way.
This has always been an uncomfortable experience for people. We see this even in our gospel reading. Simon Peter was deeply uncomfortable with having Jesus wash his feet. He and the other disciples had left everything to come and serve Jesus – he wasn’t supposed to be the one serving them, like a slave! They had just signed up to be his followers, but he was inviting them to be in relationship with him in a shockingly intimate way. Imagine how humbling and awkward that must have felt – to have perfection incarnate kneeling at your feet, taking off your shoes and your socks, and gently washing your tired feet. It’s bad enough when it’s just your plain old sinful human neighbor!
Jesus’ act humbles his disciples. And at the same time, this act lifts them up to be his equals, to be his friends. And once he is finished, Jesus commands the disciples to do to one another just as he has done to them. But Jesus isn’t just talking about washing each other’s feet. He commands them to love one another as he has loved them. This commandment is about relationship and mutual love. Loving like Jesus loves means serving others and allowing them to serve us in return, coming to see them as equals and friends. Loving like Jesus means letting go of our need to be in control, and breaking down the barriers we have in place to keep ourselves safe and separate from other people. Loving like Jesus means recognizing that none of us is an island, but that all of us truly do depend on one another, and on God.
This is the love that we are called to practice as a community in Christ – love that we are to practice both giving and receiving. And we are called to practice this love not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of the world. The love we practice as a community is a witness to God’s love – a witness into which the whole world is invited. This is the love by which Jesus says the world will know us as his disciples.
So come; partake in this love. I know it’s still awkward and uncomfortable, believe me. I know you’re still reluctant to take off your shoes and socks in church and let someone else touch and wash your feet. God knows I am reluctant too. But at the end of the day, I think that our continued resistance to this practice reveals the incredible power that it has. It’s an act of love that we are asked to give and to receive. After all, Christ commanded us to love one another as he first loved us – but how can we express that love unless we let ourselves experience it?
Christ is here, waiting to show you love. Come and be made clean. Love and let yourself be loved as Christ first loved you.