And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." (John 13:2b-8a, NRSV)
Lord, you will never wash my feet. I am special. Those other people may need their feet washed, but I do not. Those other people don't get how inappropriate it is for you to be doing such a thing. In the middle of dinner, even. I am not going to let myself be put in such a humiliating position. I am not going to be embarrassed. I am embarrassed enough, for you! You are the host, not the servant. I am in control of my personal space and you will never tend to me in a way that will make me feel something I don't want to feel. It's getting out of control here. I will not have that kind of relationship with you.
I will not have that kind of relationship with you.
This day of all days in the liturgical year is the most odd. The most difficult to understand. Jesus is doing some last things, giving instructions, even down to role playing, and it all speaks to a future that is incomprehensible to everyone in the story. It is incomprehensible to us. Why the supper, why the foot washing, why such an intimate spectacle? What has this got to do with our faith? It makes us feel things we do not want to feel. This is not the way we want to be close to Jesus - trying to go with the flow while he instructs and yet does not really explain. We don't get it. We are to love, to remember, to serve and even while not really understanding. Jesus says, the understanding is not the point. We will understand later.
We are called to be in relationship with people we do not understand - people we may not like, may not approve of, may not want to associate with. We are called to serve them and we are called to let them serve us. Most of us do not really want to be served (unless we've paid for it and then it's our due, that's the proper way so that everyone knows his or her place) and we do not really want to be in relationship with odd people, or smelly people, or people who don't make sense or people who we imagine have nothing to give us in return. We don't want things to get out of control.
I have seen programs where people from churches or community organizations bring food to share with others. Homeless folks, or the mentally ill. The volunteers are truly glad to serve and do so cheerfully. They stand in the kitchen and give out the food, and they smile, and they greet people, and they tirelessly dish up food for as long as it takes to feed everyone. But they do not want to sit at the table and have conversation with the people to whom they serve the food. Not because they think they are better. But because they are embarrassed. They cannot imagine what to talk about. They imagine they are supposed to be in charge of the talking anyway. They are the hosts, the providers. That is their role and they understand it. It's well-defined. I serve, you eat. I provide what you need. But there is no sense of reciprocity. Perhaps if they saw one of them coming toward them with a plate of food, they might say, you are not going to eat with me, are you? You will never eat with me. I will not have that kind of relationship with you. It's not proper. I don't want to be embarrassed, this not what I expected. Please don't get in my personal space.
Sadly, this goes on in the Church, too. Some parts of the Church say to other parts of the Church, you are not going to eat with me, are you? You will never eat with me. It is not proper. I will not have that kind of relationship with you.
But on the night before he died for us, whatever else was going on, Jesus taught about how to be in relationship. Most of it we will only truly understand later.