A Tender Touch for Dirty Feet
Today, Maundy Thursday, marks the transition between the season of Lent and the three days of the Easter Triduum. It’s the day we remember Jesus washing the feet of the disciples the night before he would be crucified. Here, as he reflects on that night of tenderness and not-yet-realized grief, Dr. Dan Allender recalls his own experience of feet-washing and what it revealed to him about the holiness of tender touch that is too much to bear. This post also appeared on The Seattle School’s Intersections blog.
At the end of our two-week conference in Ethiopia, Becky and I and Jan Meyers Proett asked if we could wash the feet of the 40 Africans that had gathered to be trained in trauma care. Wonde, our generous Ethiopian guide, shook his head no. “It will be too difficult to let three white people touch the feet of Africans.” He explained that many from East and West Africa had seldom been touched by white missionaries. A westerner washing the feet of an African was unheard of. We asked if he would pray.
None of us felt heroic or radical in our request. It seemed like the only way to honor our friends as we departed. We understood that touching another person’s feet is somewhat unseemly and countercultural in any context, but the weight of what appeared on Wonde’s face was more than we could fathom. We waited, and the next day he said, “Yes, but know that some may not come. For some, it is too intimate and for others too degrading to see you on your knees, touching their feet.”
In our last evening together, we knelt and washed each person’s feet. Many wept. It may be one of the holiest hours I have spent on earth. The concrete dug into my knees. My body ached to stand, but I could not rise. Becky and Jan washed the women’s feet. I bathed the feet of the men. One man had been recently betrayed by an American mission board, his family and ministry left to die on the vine after countless promises had been violated.
Jan and Becky finished, and all but one man had come. I didn’t know what to do. To require him to come would have been another form of colonization. To get up and go on to the last of our teaching felt like a form of exclusion. I heard Jesus say: “Put your head on the ground and pray.”
To this day, I don’t know how long it took, but Jacob eventually came to the front and sat in front of me. I asked him, “May I wash your feet?” He could barely look me in the eyes and he nodded, ‘yes.’ He confessed that he had come to hate white westerners. I confessed that my family had betrayed him, and I asked for his forgiveness.
What occurred next is too holy to describe and too intimate to reveal. I will only say, I have never encountered a moment before or since that felt as thin between this world and the unseen realm of heaven. I finished washing his feet and then he asked if he could wash mine. The privilege of touching his feet, weeping, and blessing him was august. To let him wash my feet felt terrifying. It all made sense, in an instant—Maundy Thursday.
Peter refuses to let Jesus bow and wash his feet. Jesus tells him that unless one’s feet are clean, there is no entry into the kingdom of heaven.
5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13: 5-9)
Jacob washed my feet. My feet are bony, brittle, and weak. Countless bouts of gout have deformed my big toes. The hair on my toes became a taunt when pubescence wrenched me from childhood. The days’ heat built up layers of sweat and staunched my feet in a foul smell. He tenderly took my feet into the basin and looked me in the eyes as he spoke blessing over my undeserving life.
It is a day to bear his touch before our lust, rage, and self-deception send him to the cross.
I met Jesus and he is from Burkina Faso. He is black. He is tender and bold. He kissed my feet when we were finished. We held each other and wept for what might be as long as the time from that moment until we are together in eternity.
And this is what Jesus is inviting you to today. Today is Maundy Thursday—the day before the crucifixion. It is a day to bear his touch before our lust, rage, and self-deception send him to the cross. The cross is not merely his alignment and solidarity with our suffering. It is that and far more. He bears the weight of all our idolatry and self-righteousness we refuse to own, and he takes it on to free us of a burden we couldn’t shoulder.
Before he takes our sin, he offers us his tender touch. Take and receive, feel your awkwardness and fury. You don’t need a full bath. You simply need to let him take up your feet and let the water of his love prepare you for the next three days.