Like so much else in John's Gospel, the foot-washing is an enigmatic story. I've been pondering it for years.
So let me set the scene. The disciples are all gathered in an upper room. Around the time of Passover - the saving event in the life of Israel - celebrated at a festive dinner with one's friends and relatives.
Now in three of the gospels, Jesus is recalled as initiating a sacred action during the meal, where he identifies himself with the sharing of bread and wine - a gift to be remembered and repeated for all time.
But in John's Gospel, a different gift is offered. As remembrance of divine action and presence.
The Foot Washing.
As I said initially, anyone can imagine being part of it:
So here we are, having supper with a revered teacher. Someone whose words and deeds set our hearts aflame (like the burning bush). Someone who so completely identifies himself with Holy Mystery - that if we see him, he tells us, we also see his Father.
And now our host at the banquet takes off his good clothes, wraps a towel around him (something only a slave or a servant would wear), fills a bowl with water, and slowly approaches each of us. To wash our feet.
The command is implicit: Remain seated. Take off your shoes. (We are suddenly on holy ground, before the Burning Bush.)
"Give me your feet," the ritual asks of us. Give me your vulnerability. Entrust yourself completely to my care. One cannot stand on one's feet and allow them to be washed - at the same time. So we must give ourselves over. One and all. Even Judas. And who among us can say we have never been a betrayer?
"If you want to be part of the Mystery, you must permit this," Jesus tells Peter. This complete reversal of societal expectations, of religious rituals. To become as vulnerable as a child - being bathed, or fed, by its mother. The center of divine attention.
But pride and self-sufficiency are hard to part with. It was for Peter. That, it seems to me, is what we are ultimately asked to give up. And in so doing, to place ourselves in the hands of Ultimate Mystery.
In the face of an unknown future, the mystery invites us to let go of our self-importance. In blind trust, it would seem. For a time of trial is upon us. (And when in life is there never a trial upon us?)
I am reminded of words spoken by God to Joshua after the death of Moses. In moment of great tension, suddenly left to lead a people (hard to govern) in a momentous task (to cross the Jordon - into an unknown future), Joshua is told not to fear. To be strong and courageous, for "Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you... As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you."
In the Holy Ground of our lives, we are not alone. One thing is asked of us, as of Joshua: To remember the Teachings - the gift already given. To meditate on them day and night. (Which links up nicely with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm - where the Just One - likened to a tree planted by streams of water- drinks with "delight ... the law of the Lord, / and on his law ... meditates day and night.")