Last fall I was invited to a women’s gathering at a church right around the corner from my home. This church is intentionally pressing into the unity of the Church, across ethnic and economic divisions, and I knew the women at this gathering would be coming not only from the Austin neighborhood (my neighborhood) but also from surrounding suburbs. I would see African American, white, and Latina faces, and the leadership team would reflect this diversity as well.
The theme of the morning was service, and the leaders put flesh on this theme. They served every woman there. I rushed in late, and while one leader gave up her seat so I could have a spot at a table, another brought me breakfast, and still another got me coffee and orange juice. I was almost overwhelmed by their service,.
After some fellowship with table mates and a sermon about our call to servanthood, one of the leaders stepped to the podium. “We’ve been praying about this gathering for a long time,” she said, “and we asked God to show us how we could best serve you. We felt led to wash feet as an act of service.”
Ah, foot washing! I’d never encountered it till I was a college student and I went to a Grace Brethren church that practiced it as part of their communion service. Since then, I’ve participated in foot washing in several contexts, but I’d never just had my feet washed. I’d always washed another’s as well. Foot washing always has an uncomfortable element to it (which is good, I think), but this felt particularly strange because I would be receiving only, not giving, and I’m not exactly great at that.
The other women and I pulled off shoes and stripped off socks. I brushed lint away from my heels and curled my toes into the carpet. I stared at my feet.
Leaders began coming to the tables, kneeling before the seated women.
Suddenly a leader was in front of me.
She, an African American leader was in front of me, a white woman.
I am very often aware of my whiteness, on a number of levels. I live in a neighborhood in which whites are only 2% of the population. When I walk or drive down my street, I often get second looks. Though I wouldn’t say I’m completely relaxed with this, I see it as being good for me.
But this: an African American woman in front of me; kneeling in front of me; about to wash my feet…
I instinctively pulled my feet back. Tears began streaming down my face.
And I don’t know what she was processing, but tears started streaming down her face as well. Still, she pushed the bowl of water toward me and held out her hands.
And I put my feet into them. And we cried together. And she washed my feet.
When she finished, we both stood and embraced. I was close to sobbing.
This next week, as part of the Maundy Thursday service of Holy Week, in which we celebrate Jesus’ last night with his disciples, we here in Cornerstone Parish will wash each other’s feet. We are a parish of multiple congregations. Our congregations span economic levels, ethnic divides, educational levels… I don’t know whose feet I will wash. I don’t know who will wash my feet. There will be, no matter what, uncomfortable moments.
And it will be strange.
And that is good.
Because we all, brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to love each other in ways that let the outside world know we follow Christ. We are called to serve each other in ways that run counter-cultural to the world around us.
And though this service and love should reach far, far beyond foot washing, the foot washing itself is a wonderful start. It’s a reminder and a call into depths of love only possible in and through Christ.