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Never Wash My Feet

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by Kate Kooyman

So here’s the truth: I have really ugly feet. I have a vivid memory of my dad telling me once that my big toes looked like carrots, and he wasn’t wrong, and since that moment I’ve carried an awareness that while I may have lots of ladylike qualities, my feminine and beguiling feet are not among them.

Enter evangelical youth group culture and its requisite foot washing. I truly can’t conjure up any specific memories of this — who touched my feet, whose feet I touched — because all I can remember is vulnerability and embarrassment. I hated foot washing youth groups.

So I feel some closeness to Peter, whose reaction to Jesus’s offer of foot washing was something like mine might have been, had I been a disciple in that holy moment: “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

I was taught that the shocker of this moment was the debasing nature of the action — Jesus was taking on the role of a servant instead of a leader. And this makes sense. In first century Palestine, to have one’s foot washed by a nameless, faceless servant was apparently normal fare; it was having those feet washed by one’s teacher (or Savior!) that changed the game. And thus, the object lesson for youth groups was that love was being humble, being a servant, meeting another’s need.

But truth be told, that was never my biggest takeaway from the foot washing night. I actually didn’t mind washing someone else’s feet that much, so it wasn’t that hard for me to consider that love looked like serving. The problem for me was having my own feet in the hands of one of my peers. I hated having my carrot toes (and moreover, my imperfect self) being seen and touched. I’m more a wash-my-own-feet kinda gal.

This week my friend, who came to the U.S. as a refugee three years ago, shared one of her biggest challenges in trying to adapt to American culture. In this country, people keep to themselves. They’re busy, they’re private, they’re independent, their flaws and struggles are kept hidden. It’s nothing like the culture she comes from, which she described as knowing everyone’s business and sharing blessings and burdens alike. In this moment, I felt American, through and through. I really don’t want anyone to know my business, or bear my burden, or see my flaws, or touch my feet. I want to love and be loved, as long as it happens on my terms and when I have an opening in my google calendar. And as long as I can keep my socks on.

On Maundy Thursday we’re invited to remember the mandate Jesus gives his followers after he surprises them with the foot washing: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

I wonder if, for Americans like me, a more honest act of love looks less like searching out someone else’s dirty feet to fix, and instead the courage to take off our socks. To experience the excruciating vulnerability of allowing ourselves to be human in front of another person. To walk around with some dirty feet, and let somebody see them, touch them, wash them, dry them.

It sounds awful. And it sounds holy.

Comments 6

  1. Thanks, Kate. I’m sitting here waiting for the orthopedic surgeon assistants to remove the stitches out of my toes. Great time to read your comments. All kidding aside, I appreciate it. Being vulnerable is not one of my strengths. I’m working on it.

  2. Here’s the thing though: For some of us, reluctance to have our feet washed isn’t just about not wanting to be vulnerable. I am autistic, and like many autistics I don’t like to be touched. Whether having my feet washed or doing the washing, I wouldn’t be able to feel anything except the revulsion of enforced physical contact; nor would I feel comfortable bringing attention to myself by sitting out an activity touted as symbolic of service. Attending church services, like any other social activity, is hard enough for me; foot-washing would make me feel alienated, and less likely to keep attending that church.

  3. Lovely piece. Gives new resonance to the phrase “knock your socks off”! I do empathize with Rachel’s concern about any kind of enforced touching, even in a liturgical context. Vulnerability can take different forms for different people.

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