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John 13:1-17, 31b-35
1 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Every Maundy Thursday, the traditional gospel reading is the story you just heard. The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In fact, if you turn in most Bibles these days to John 13, you’re likely to find those exact words as a heading for this story – “Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.”
The problem is that I find myself not all that interested in the “washing” part of it. I mean, just imagine for a moment if Jesus were to stand up, wrap a towel around himself, kneel down at their feet, and then, without ever touching them, he grabs some Dial liquid body soap, squirts some on their toes and hose off their feet with one of those hand-held shower sprayers that we all love and hate at the same time.
He’s still washing their feet, but it paints an entirely different picture.
For this reason, I’m convinced that this story isn’t about washing at all. If I could change the title of this story, it wouldn’t be “Jesus washes the disciples feet.” It would be “Jesus touches the disciples’ feet.”
Because that’s the scandal, right? That Jesus kneels down and touches them.
The shocker, the wrench of this story isn’t that Jesus splashes some water on them. The point wasn’t to get them clean. Jesus makes that clear to Peter. No, there is more to what Jesus is doing here. And the crux, the nerve-center, the heart of it, I think, is that Jesus takes their feet into his hands. It’s the skin-to-skin time with Jesus. It’s the touching that matters.
In light of this, I did some research on the power of touch. And I learned some things along the way.
First off, I learned that touch is everyone’s first language. It is the first sense that we acquire. Which is why standard practice in birth centers these days is for a newborn to immediately have skin-to-skin time with his or her parents. The benefits are staggering. We come into this world needing touch.
Then, I read a story about a man who brought his 90-year-old father to the doctor and never once during the appointment did the doctor touch the patient. With his body turned toward the computer screen, the doctor let the data say and do it all. “This reflects a troubling trend in contemporary medicine,” the author says. “In one corner of the room were the facts of the case, the data flashing on a computer screen. In the other corner of the room was the patient, the human being, shivering, perplexed and untouched.” An article in AARP magazine talked about how as we age, our skin becomes less sensitive to touch, and thus we need it even more. And yet, cruelly, with children and grandchildren often far away, and spouses who have died, aging people get touched the least. We may come into this world needing touch, but we leave this world needing touch too.
Part of the problem is our culture. One psychologist says that we live in a touch-phobic society. But another part of the problem just might be our religion too. Did you know that atheists and agnostics touch more than religious people do? Most likely because religions often teach that some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful.
Which is true. Some kinds of touch are inappropriate or sinful. Just saying all of this, I feel cautious because I know that such a word as “touch” can be equated with “hurt, pain, abuse” for some of us. The other way touch can feel inappropriate or sinful is that touching can also seem too intimate. All you have to do is recall a time when beneath the table you’re sitting at, you accidentally rested your foot against the foot of another who was not your spouse. The moment you realize that isn’t the table leg you’re toe is touching, your legs recoil like broken springs and blood rushes to your cheeks, as you embarrassingly apologize.
Our problem with touching is that it can feel too intimate. Even some statistics suggest that even within the majority of marriage relationships, we struggle to touch one another. Whether platonically or romantically, the truth is we aren’t very good at touching each another.
Overall, what I learned is that while the act of one person touching another can be a dangerous thing, the act of one person not touching another can even more dangerous. Touch: newborns need it to thrive, the elderly need to it die well. And those living in-between need it to feel whole again.
And so isn’t that remarkable, that we as religious people have a tendency to not touch each other, despite Jesus’ outright call to go and touch and wash each other’s feet? Loving one another as he has loved us.
Some people have called this foot washing with Jesus the “neglected sacrament”, wondering why this act of feet washing hasn’t been claimed as a sacred ritual of the church, practiced as much as baptism and communion.
Now, if you think I’m going to suggest that we start this, don’t worry.
But I do think it is a shame that we have become so touch-phobic. I once was part of a congregation that rarely passed the peace and they had little interest in doing so. Some complained about the spreading of germs, but I think it had more to do with the fact that it asks us to touch one another. Eventually, the pastor reinstated it as part of our regular liturgy. As we all got used to it, one woman said that now she comes to church for that moment of passing the peace, because it is the only time during the week when anyone touches her.
So, on this Holy night, as Jesus wraps a towel around himself and kneels at the feet of his disciples, I’m struck not by him humbling himself to a servant level, but rather by the intimate touching.
It is this profoundly beautiful act. But what does it all mean?
I’m not sure. What I do know is that Jesus doesn’t simply clean their feet in an act of humble service. He touches their feet in an act of loving relationship. And in that Jesus has set an example for us, and called us to do the same. What I do know is that on this night Jesus stands in the shadow of the cross and has asked us to follow him. Which means whatever he is asking of us, it won’t be easy. And it will likely change us.
That’s the power of touch. It changes us. With loving, caring, soothing touch in our life, we can thrive. But without it, we wither away.
A couple of years ago, at a previous congregation, we did a hand washing on Maundy Thursday. We all were a little nervous – this new and intimate and vulnerable thing that was about to happen. With warm water poured over their hands and into a basin, I held and washed hands of people I loved but that I had only touched previously in the form of a handshake. I could feel their callouses, that grown over years of hard work. Their swollen knuckles, that surely ached, though they would never say that. I felt their paper thin skin. Their youthful strength.
And it changed something. In all of us. We all had to put our guards down and expose a vulnerable side that is easier to keep hidden most days. If there were any hard feelings between me and a parishioner prior to that night, they seemed to rub away like dirt in the water.
To touch and to be touched in such as way as Jesus did – it changes us.
A couple of years ago, preacher Barbara Brown Taylor taught a class on Christian practice at a seminary. 40 people showed up for four days of talking about all the ways we learn and practice faith by what we do in our bodies. Not just the obvious – baptism, communion, laying on of hands, but also, singing hymns, visiting the sick, walking a labyrinth, lighting candles.
After the class had talked and talked for days and days, Barbara and her co-teacher decided to actually do something. To practice the Christian faith. They decided on a wordless foot washing service. No talking. Just washing.
With everyone using this first language of touch, Barbara got to watch as people spoke to each through this wordless skin-to-skin ritual. It was a sacred time to be sure, but the most powerful moment occurred between a married couple. The two “had been fighting off and on all week (quietly, they thought), but you could still tell from their body language that there was something going on with them that was taking more out of them than usual. The woman went first, removing her husbands shoes and socks as if he were one of their own children. Then she placed his right foot in the glass basin and poured warm water over it, took a bar of white soap in her hands and started working up a light lather. Then she took his foot in her hands with such tenderness, that he began weeping. Bending over her as far as he could without falling off his chair. As soon as she realized what was happening, she started crying too…When she was through, he put his arm under hers and he helped her to a chair. Then he knelt in front of her and he took all the rings off of her hand. The wedding ring took some doing. But he got it off. Then he anointed her hands, taking each of her small ones in his big ones, and kneading them, until they were soft. And then he lifted her hands to his wet face. Placing one of his on each side on top of one of her, so that it was his hands on her hands on his face. They stayed that way for a long time, just letting the water work. Then he fished around on the floor for her wedding ring and he put it back on her finger and there was rejoicing in heaven…It was a miracle. It was the kingdom of God. And what was required? Some people. Some bowls. Some water.” Some touching. 
Even though Jesus knew that they would betray him and deny him and abandon him, Jesus used his body to communicate to his disciples’ bodies about the divine love that has been poured out for them. And tomorrow evening, we will hear as Jesus will use his body to communicate to the entire human body about God’s unending grace. And that kind of wordless love changed the disciples and the world in ways we will never fully know. All we know is that what they received has been passed on to us through the bodies of others throughout history.
I don’t know if Jesus was inventing a ritual for us to do with regularity, but he was showing us an example of his love for us and for the world, and he has entrusted us to figure out how to do the same.
One of the great joys of being a pastor here is getting to watch you figure it out, as you use your bodies to pass on the love and the faith you have received. As you reach out your hand to your friend moving down the aisle. As you approach the grieving one whose spouse just died and wrap them up in your arms. As you stick out your hand in greeting to the stranger in your midst.
Those wordless rituals, that touching…it changes us. And I’m reminded once again that the worship in this place begins long before the organ starts playing or the pastor begins speaking.
This holy weekend, as we watch as Jesus’ body is given over in love, I invite you to pay attention to your own body, your own sense of touch and how it too has the capacity to communicate God’s love for this world. For that is the command Jesus has given to us – to love one another as he has loved us. With our bodies. Jesus invites us to an embodied discipleship that asks us to risk vulnerability and willingness to be changed by the love of others. Which can feel like death and new life all at the same time. Watch as people use their bodies to carry candles, tell stories, and sing in unison. Watch as people hold hands, or embrace, or pass peace. Watch as forgiveness is declared and water sprinkled. And may all of that bring close to your body the grace of God poured out for you in Jesus Christ. And may your body be a bearer of that grace as well. Amen
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Bathing Deep”, https://www.thegreatlecturelibrary.com/index.php?select=speaker&data=282