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Nineteen years ago we started washing feet at our Maundy Thursday worship service.

This isn’t so much a “success story,” more of a “how my mind has changed.” In that way, perhaps it is a success.

When we first suggested offering foot washing in worship on the Thursday of Holy Week, there was quite a kerfuffle. Strange. Odd. Creepy. Would it be mandatory? What about women with nylon stockings? What were the health risks?

Looking back, I think the only reason it was approved was because we were still in that honeymoon phase of a pastorate. They didn’t want to dishearten their new pastors any more than they wanted to have their feet washed. We addressed the various concerns, even consulting a Mennonite minister who had considerable experience with foot washing in worship.

With lots of preparation and lots of anxiety, that first Maundy Thursday worship arrived. Sophie, my wife and co-pastor, would wash women and girls’ feet. I would do the men and boys. And there would be another station where partners could wash one another’s feet.

It’s hard to know exactly, but I would guess somewhere around a quarter to a third of the people present that night participated, while the others sang songs. Of course, evening services during Holy Week are never exactly bursting at the seams. It went off without incident.

Now it has continued for years. I’d like to report that participation has increased greatly. It has increased, if only slightly. The station where partners wash each other’s feet has probably grown the most. The biggest increase has been in acceptance and calm. Worshippers know foot washing will be offered and know equally that they do not have to participate.

Does It Work?

I hate asking questions like “Is it efficacious? Has been it been successful?” How do you evaluate? Don’t questions like that tend to push worship toward a consumeristic sideshow?

I wonder if the fact that we wash feet only once a year keeps us from valuing it to the fullest. We simply don’t become familiar enough with it to savor it and discover its depths. I’ve even wondered if it hasn’t become a bit like the Lord’s Supper among the hyper-Reformed a century ago—infrequently practiced with only a portion of the congregation participating.

But here’s an interesting outgrowth. About one year ago, in Sunday morning worship, our scripture passage was Luke’s account of the woman anointing Jesus, washing his feet with her tears and kisses.  We decided to offer foot washing, anointing with oil, and a holy kiss at different stations across the chancel. People could choose one or all three, or none. I expected twelve or fifteen people to come forward. We were flooded. The line of people waiting stretched to the back of the sanctuary. Anointing with oil was by far the most popular, but the other two stations had plenty of activity, too.

It’s Harder to Receive than Give

I think I’ve had a couple of insights, maybe changes, over the years. First, you don’t need to be a licensed symbologist to see how foot washing communicates humility, hospitality, service, even cleansing. But increasingly I see it also expressing vulnerability on the part of the one having her/his feet washed. It really is, “Here I am, warts and all!” The recipient, more than the washer, is the courageous one.

Our prayer prior to foot washing concludes with these words,

Our feet resemble our lives—twisted, grubby, and embarrassing.
To let others see and touch us is difficult.
It is humiliating for us to accept the service of others.
Gentle Spirit of God, relieve our fears. Open us to your cleansing grace.
Make us receptive to our neighbors’ humble efforts to serve us.
In serving and being served, weave us together into a lowly towel that you use to cleanse and care for your world.

You Should Do as I Have Done

Second, as I hear or the read the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, increasingly I am impressed by the forcefulness of Jesus’s words. “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done.” Pretty straightforward.

I’ve long asked why foot washing isn’t a third sacrament. Other than the fact it is recorded only in John’s Gospel, it seems to meet the criteria I was taught are necessary for a sacrament. It is initiated by Jesus and he directs us to continue the practice. I’m not tilting at windmills here. I’m not suggesting that the Church actually should make foot washing a third sacrament. But over time, I’ve come to trust that foot washing is more than a great symbolic act. When we do it, the Holy Spirit accomplishes things in us, blesses us, transforms us in ways we will never realize.

We could say with the Lord’s Supper that it is “just” a symbol of fellowship, a reminder of Jesus’s costly love, that shared meals build community. Similarly, hard boiled rationalists that we are, we might say baptism is a touching ritual of initiation that points toward cleansing and new life.

But at least with the sacraments we say—officially, doctrinally—that they are more than just symbolic acts. They are more than can be rationally understood or measured. By the Holy Spirit, somehow something (two of my most well-worn, trusted, and precise theological terms—somehow and something) happens to us when we come to the table or the font. If we try to describe or define exactly what that something is, we get into trouble. We slice and dice it to death.

If we say that these acts, these rituals, were given to us by Jesus and we trust that more is going on than we can see or measure, we are getting close to the heart of the matter. They are, I sometimes say, “value-added.” Yes, there are all the symbolic actions, the externals. But there is also value-added. The Holy Spirit works in us, accomplishes things in us that we will never fully know or understand or feel.

And for that reason alone, I suspect we will continue to wash feet on Maundy Thursday. And maybe even more often than that.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

7 Comments

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Powerful essay, Steve. Thank you. The prayer is stunning.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    I did this years ago while teaching my third grade Sunday school class at Central Reformed Church about Holy Week. Having tired one year of the pomp, ceremony and chaos of Palm Sunday I did a foot washing instead of teaching about Palm Sunday.

    Their initial reaction was fear their feet would smell, but after the first few they got very quiet and I began hearing things like, “My mom does this sometimes,” or “the water feels good.” But soon I heard, “ Jesus did this, didn’t he?” We talked about who normally washed the guests feet in the ancient world and how Jesus had performed the duties of a servant.
    Finally a question I remember to this day came from a freckle-faced boy who asked, “Why are you baptizing our feet?”
    Out of the mouths of babes…

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    somehow…. something….. and the Holy Spirit….
    Thanks.

  • George E says:

    Foot washing is a sacrament within the Grace Brethren tradition. When I belonged, we did it quarterly, along with the Lord’s supper.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Thought-provoking, Steve. Thank you.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Excellent. Somehow something. Value-added. I’m a little jealous.

  • JoAnne says:

    Touch reaches us at the core of our being. I think you have a point that it seems like a ritual which Jesus wished for us to repeat. I like foot washing, but I would really go for a shoulder massage, LOL.

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