The Washing of Feet

She was using her index finger on one hand to clean the fingernails on her other hand, right there at the dinner table filled with strangers. I envied her nonchalance, but mostly I was disgusted by her actions. Ew. I didn't put on a dress (that I had to iron!), and the slightest hint of makeup (oh how I hate makeup!) to have you clean your nails across from me, ma'am. On top of that, she mentioned being a surgeon what seemed like every chance she got, turned out to be a wine snob and flipped her hair way too much over the course of the evening. Just one of those people who rubbed me the wrong way. I know, I know, harsh and undeserved. I should reserve this kind of judgement for people who truly deserve it. Ha!  I don't claim to be a saint.

I was lying in bed feeling bad for my petty judgement when I had a strong sense of conviction. "Nia, imagine washing her feet." Huh? What now? My immediate confusion was dispelled by a memory of a feet-washing service my church used to hold maybe once a year. I let myself re-live it and then I understood.

Photo by Er Sever on Unsplash

Men were on one side, women on the other. There were plastic basins of rain water at the end of each pew. It was a somber, expectant and exciting night. The passage where Jesus washed his disciples' feet was read and we followed suit. The whole church would sing this simple song:
"We are washing one another's feet, for the world is filled with trials and temptations, we are washing one anther's feet."*

 Each person kneeling, taking each foot with great care, careful not to tickle, gently scooping water in a cupped hand, pouring it as if washing a newborn's head and then ceremoniously drying them with a towel. The basin of water passed down, getting redder and redder. You see, the place where we lived has a distinct feature - red dirt. (I'll spare you the science except to say this soil contains a key element that ends up making your tin foil.) Most of the congregation walked to church and some took dirt path short-cuts to get there. It was a common practice to wear your tennis shoes, or some other shoe better suited to traversing the uneven terrain, then switch into your church heels upon arrival. Not only was our dirt red, but so was our church's concrete floor. Each woman was part of a team that cleaned the church each week which meant using red wax polish and a coconut brush to bring the floor to mirror-like shine. We were no strangers to kneeling in this church. Whether to praying until we wept or to clean those same dried tears. Yes, the water was as red as Christ's blood.

This was not a cutesy ceremony for these were not soft, manicured feet. These were the feet of farmers, and of people who walked miles in a single day, who were not allowed to wear nail polish (hello, legalism!), who loved to run around bare foot over any terrain (me!) and of worshipers who danced in high heels every week for years. It was a vulnerable experience - having your feet washed in this way - and a place of humility for the person washing the feet. I imagine someone washing my winter-parched feet and looking up at my triple chin. Yikes. I don't love the thought of it. And honestly, podiatry day in the nursing home was my least favourite (followed closely by fish and brussel sprouts days). I don't particularly like feet. How fitting this chastisement.

Photo by Melanie Kreutz on Unsplash

It's like when someone says to visualize everyone in the audience naked in order to quell your anxious nerves. Recalling that ceremony helped put me out of my judgey zone.
Try it.
Close your eyes.
Envision either your worst enemy or someone who annoys you. You know the one...or the several.
Kneel in front of them with a basin of water.
Start washing their feet.
Don't rush.
While you are down there, imagine where their feet have been.  Is their nail-polish pristine or chipped? Any scars? Can you tell how many miles they have walked?
Look up.
Do you see how exposed they feel? Are they uncomfortable and squirmy? Are they grateful? Do they look relaxed? Are they in tears, just grateful to be cared for?
Was the lady at my table a tired surgeon, mom and wife whose nail cleaning and hair flipping were nervous habits and who just wanted to be valued for her job and talk about something besides her kid (wine!)? Does it matter? Our basin water may not turn red from floor polish and dirt, but I bet there are colourful stories floating around in there. If you're like me, maybe the feet you need to wash are related to you. Maybe they are your own.

Now that we aren't allowed to get close to others, let alone wash each others' feet, how poignant this reminder is to me now. How much sweeter that ceremony rests in my memory.

And when we rise from the washing, may we do so with new-found grace and perspective. Perhaps an outstretched arm will be waiting to help us to our own feet.

*Thank you to my church sister Simone for tracking down these lyrics for me. Cleaning those church floors with you was a pleasure.


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