For many years, on a day appointed long ago by holy men watching the moon and adjusting their calendars, I used to join a small number of other persons in the small back room called the Vestibule at King’s Chapel. First we would hear the gospel description of Jesus washing the feel of his disciples as they gathered for what would prove to be their last communal meal. Then, slowly, silently, we would wash each other’s feet.
It wasn’t really a deep cleansing of the feet, but the nakedness and water made it intimate. You would take off the sock and shoe of one foot — this was, after all, a ritual — and when your turn came, hold that foot over the basic placed on the floor in front of you. The person whose foot had just been washed would be the person who had put it there. She or he would kneel next to it with the pitcher of tepid water, and pour that water over your foot into the basin. With the other hand, there might be a bit of massaging, but I don’t remember there being any soap. Then the washer would put down the pitcher, take up a towel, and dry your foot. As she or he returned to their seat, you would rise, kneel down in front of your own neighbor, who would extend his or her foot for you to attend to.
Over the years, I saw many feet this way. Some had horrible bunyons, some were veined and grey. Others were fresh and pedicured, and some had callouses or whatever. Whatever it was, you washed that foot.
Those memories came back to me this week, as my roommate, who is afflicted with Huntington’s Disease, requested my assistance in taking her bath. Up to now, she has been independent about this, and the slow deterioration of her bathing has troubled us both. I don’t know why I decided to wait until she asked, once I accepted that the day was soon approaching, but so it was. Jesus had told his disciples he was going to wash their feet, but in this case, I felt it was the washee and not the washer whose dignity was at stake. In any case, my hands knew how to pace and temper their work, because of the training I had in that Vestibule.
There are many other sacred baths that flit across my memory screen as well: washing my feet and hands to enter a newly-built mosque which was open to heathen neighbors before its dedication; a wonderful description of taking a mikvah that came in some long ago New Yorker, struggling to keep my feet pointed down in Bangkok, lest the soles inadvertently offend; washing the nephews, now fully grown, who were somehow always delivered to auntie in need of a bath; watching a bird splashing the other day in the puddle which has taken up residence at the foot of our driveway in this floody, muddy Vermont spring.
I am not talking here about baptism, that radical cleansing by which we hope to be made new. This is about the sustainer God, often portrayed as a goddess. The one who helps us keep order as we slog along life’s long middle journey, neither at a beginning or at an end. The one some of us reach out to by doing laundry when everything falls into chaos.
It goes without saying that footwashing at King’s Chapel has an element of radical social justice. I became aware of it in the 1980s, when AIDS was wreaking havoc among gay men we knew and loved. Indeed, as that sad 30th anniversary pops up in the news, I remind myself what a gift those men gave to my Christian faith, in their washing, feeding, visiting and mourning of each other. They exhibited simultaneously a strength not associated with the old stereotype (have young folks even heard of the “limp-wristed” insult?) and a tenderness not associated with testosterone. They put aside the questions of creation and redemption, looking simply to the sacred tasks and images of sustaining.
And if a person with HIV/AIDS was sitting next to you, that was the foot you washed.
For many UUs, to have a person of color extend their foot over that bowl would radically invert the assumed social order in which we, the moneyed white folk, get washed by darker hands. For UUs of color, to have white hands reach out to bathe and dry your foot is to finally experience integration which goes beyond the mere sitting together at careful distances. For UUs of Islamic or Jewish background, to see our Christian background share sacred bathing is to find a space where all our ancestors are one.
If we, as a religion, are to every again grow and prosper — an open and difficult question — it will be because we assemble, from all the world’s traditions, all our sources of imagery, history and hope, a new cultural language of pastoral care for each other. A language which assumes both illness and energy, every continent, any language, any faith at the ancestral Thanksgiving table. And then, remembering that we covenant to serve each other as well as God’s world, we bring these gestures into a more intimate version of what has been a stand-offish way of worship.