I ponder foot washing
. . .And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then 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. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ 7Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ 8Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’9Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. . .
During the beginning of my second semester in seminary, professors told beautiful stories of their first bibles and wonderful stories of their call, not without struggle, but surrounded by the uplift and love of Christian communities and families.
I won’t speak of my call story here, a simple call heard early. A simple call denied. But I will say that the Christian love experienced by so many in this community was denied me -- That love is still denied in so many churches. And I will speak of my first Bible. I remember it well. It came in a delivery box in the late summer of 2021, one of the books listed as required for seminary. Impersonal. I opened the box, pulled the Bible out, and set it aside, not willing, not ready yet, to open it. Not ready to read.
I am a woman. I am Queer. I am transgender. I began a path, renewed, to faith leadership about one year ago, but I had no love for the Bible. I knew it only as the weapon. Can you wonder at a woman starting a path when she couldn’t easily open the central guide for that path? A woman who cringed hearing prayer. A woman who could not say the name, Jesus? I can only say that the call surprised me too! I walked into this gauntlet of words of faith twisted into weapons fully knowing the absurdity, fully feeling every bit of the pain.
When I set out to read the Bible, I set out defiantly. I set out to read, purposefully avoiding the “clobber passages”, because I didn’t want my reading to be a reaction to such specific hate. And in reading, starting with Mark, then sporadically as the joyful, unexpected work of preparing sermons took over my time, I found that love undergirds the text, in verses, in passages, in chapters and in books. I always see love.
I say this to be clear. I hear people speak of reading the scripture as written, removing ourselves from the front of the passages, the words, and reading only what is there. I cannot do that. The Bible is personal for me. The stories are personal. I feel every bit of what I read here. I feel every bit of what is missing. I hear the love of God in the words. I read the heart of the words, defiantly embracing love and inclusion in a world in which so many churches have followed the path to the hot white blaze of exclusion and hate. A world in which so many churches still will not let me lead, will not even allow me to be a member and where even my own ELCA makes accommodations with those who believe I am a sin – I am not a sin, but I carry the necessity of defiance into every interaction as I move into this Christian world.
With that clear, I hope now to dwell into John 13. My specific interest is in Jesus washing of the feet of his disciples. I start here because this scene of service is the heart of the inversions I see throughout the Bible. God incarnate as a child, not a warrior. God’s reign one of service, not kingdom of conquering. Jesus’ uplift of women in a deeply patriarchal time. A Bible rooted in Queerness – Jesus, the eldest son, adopted, of Joseph, but not continuing in the family trade. Jesus, living in a patriarchal time, not married. Jesus who came not be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28).
Before we delve into the importance of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, we should set the scene. John 13 is part of an ongoing moment, begun in John 12, as Jesus has come into Jerusalem before Passover where he had dinner at the home of Lazarus, and continuing in the moments leading to the arrest in the garden. John 12 begins 6 days before Passover. It is unclear how many days have passed between John 12 and John 13.
In John 13, we have another scene of Jesus eating dinner with his disciples. It seems likely that this is their last supper, though time is often fuzzy in Biblical accounts. Is this meal also in Lazarus’ home? If we are still in Lazarus’ home, we can assume Lazarus is there and that Mary and Martha are also present. Were other women present, even as disciples? There is an embedded idea in popular Christian thought that the disciples were all men. But we see in Acts that Dorcas/Tabitha is named as a disciple (Acts 9:36) and in Luke’s letter to the Romans (16:1-16) we see numerous women uplifted in leadership roles, including Junia the apostle. And we hear of this uplift with no word of backlash that these women are in leadership. I say this to be clear that though only men are named in John 13, in no way should we assume that only men were present and that only men ate. Our very tradition, that all Christians, regardless of gender, eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup becomes stronger if we assume that men, women, and non-binary people ate and drank and walked with Jesus.
In John 13 then, we know that Jesus, Simon Peter, and Judas Iscariot are at the table. We can wonder if Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are here as well. We can presume that there were women present, though unnamed. Thomas and Philip are mentioned later, but apparently in the same ongoing scene (John 14:5 and 14:8). We also know that the “one whom Jesus loved” was at the table, resting next to Jesus (John 13:23). This disciple is sometimes identified as John and the disciple John may have written this account, at least in part. In Queer theology this disciple, the "one whom Jesus loved" is lifted up as a Biblical recognition of Queer love, suggesting an intimate relationship of Jesus and the beloved disciple.
We can understand that the people present were reclining on cushions at the table, resting on their left elbows and eating with their right hands. We can assume they shared a communal meal as was also common in antiquity. Water through much of history, and in many areas today, was unsafe to drink. They likely drank wine, possibly watered down.
What else can we surmise? What did they eat? At that time, a common dinner might be a shared stew or soup of beans, perhaps a lentil stew with wild onions with bread and olives at the table as well. What spices filled the air? Cumin? Paprika? Coriander?
What was the conversation around the table? We cannot know. But we can imagine the simple truths of people gathering for a meal. There is likely talk of the mission. There is likely laughter. Which of these people would bring a joke into the space? It is a human instinct to find humor even in the hardest times, defiant laughter. It might have been loud as well, John and his brother James were called, “Sons of Thunder” (mark 3:17) – was this because of their actions? Was it because they were loud? Argumentative?
And in this moment, Jesus rises, removes his robe, and ties a towel around himself. He pours water into a basin. He begins to wash the feet of his disciples, coming last in this account, to Simon Peter. Just days after Mary washed and anointed his feet with a costly oil, Jesus turns to his disciples and performs an act of similar service. This moment is the heart of the inversion. We use the metaphor of kingdom for God’s reign. But that metaphor is turned upside down. Jesus does not behave like any king. Can we imagine our modern, would-be kings, bending down to wash the feet of their followers? Can we imagine any king doing so? Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And the lesson he gives his followers is to serve as he did. How well did they listen? How many priests and bishops, claiming to follow Jesus, followed this message through our history?
Our lesson, in this moment, is a clear reminder that our work in this world is to serve.
But there is a particularly interesting metaphor in this line: One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean (John 13:10). What does that mean to us now? Clearly we are not clean just by washing our feet. I am eternally grateful that those with whom I share space wash more than their feet. But in this world, at this time, the feet of those who walk in the world would be dirty from the grit of the road, more so than any other part of our bodies. Is this to be understood as cleaning the world from us, a metaphor of spiritual cleansing of our worldly concerns? Jesus says that the statement of cleaning of feet refers to one who has bathed. Is this a reference to baptism?
Notably, in this passage, Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him, yet he washes even Judas’ feet. He washes even Peter’s feet knowing that Peter will deny him. This is remarkable. This “King” serves even those whom he knows will betray and those who will fail. Do you feel the comfort in that? In the knowledge that love holds us, even in our failure.
Because we do fail.
In our Lutheran tradition, we say that we are all sinners and I know it is true. I have sinned the sins that obscure us from God too often. I sinned the sin of silence in the face of oppression. I sinned the sin of accepting this world as it is instead of fighting each day to make this a better place for each of us. How many of us sin these sins? Now in times when our transgender children are under attack, again, how many speak love into the silence? Or do you comfort yourself, saying, “Well, the laws won’t be passed,” or “Well that’s happening in Texas (or Idaho, or Florida)” and doesn’t really matter here. What then of the laws in Iowa that keep girls out of sports, naming them as unwelcome, not worthy? What of the far too many children who will consider suicide, as I did for far too long, as their only way forward among the hate that fills their communities? Do we create new excuses when the hatred is close to home?
I have failed.
I will fail again.
This is our human truth. But imagine if each time any one of us failed, they spoke that failure into our community, they showed their feet, to use the metaphor suggested in this passage of the Bible, and each time any of us failed, we who are in this community bent down to wash that failure away so that they may begin the journey anew. Our feet will get dirty, inevitably. We will fail, inevitably.
But we can begin again with the service shared in our community. It is our calling to begin again. God, who makes all things new, makes us new as well. In this passage from John 13, we see how we can each be part of our collective renewal into the work of uplifting each as we journey, as we collect the dirt of our road, layering in mistake and failing, and as we reach down and wash each of us each time free of the layerings so that we may continue our journey into love.
 The Charles NYC, “Clobbering ‘Biblical’ Gay Bashing,” Believe Out Loud, accessed March 12, 2022, https://www.believeoutloud.com/voices/article/clobbering-biblical-gay-bashing/.
 “07-29-21 Instruction-Created in the Image and Likeness of God(1).Pdf,” accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.dioceseofmarquette.org/images/files/07-29-21%20Instruction-Created%20in%20the%20Image%20and%20Likeness%20of%20God%281%29.pdf.
 “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” n.d., 48.
 I know that the term non-binary wasn’t in use in antiquity, but that doesn’t mean people whom we would identify as non-binary didn’t exist and it feels wrong to persist in the violence of Queer erasure that became so popular over the last millennium.
 Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018). Pp 317-319
 “John the Evangelist: Beloved Disciple of Jesus – and Maybe His Lover,” Q Spirit (blog), December 27, 2021, https://qspirit.net/john-evangelist-beloved-disciple/.
 “Eating in Historical Jerusalem,” accessed March 12, 2022, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/eating-in-historical-jerusalem#2.