Reflection – Getting Our Feet Wet
When I was eight years old, my family built a cottage at the Gulf Shore near Pugwash. Every summer we went to the cottage for two months plus weekends in the spring and fall. Swimming in the Northumberland Strait was practically a daily activity. While most of the kids would go running full steam into the water, I was the kid that would test the water with my big toe and then ever so gradually ease into the water – ankles, knees, hips, waist. Once I got up to my waist or chest, it would take me a long time to dunk myself totally into the water and swim. There was a rhyme that maybe some of you have used – Hen, Rooster, Chicken, Duck! While most of the kids would duck under, I’d be stuck on ‘chicken’! Well, I’m not any better at getting into the water these days as I was then. In fact, it’s such a tedious process that I just don’t swim anymore. This past September, Stephen and I with our children and their partners went to Pugwash for a weekend to the family cottage, now owned by my brother. We were walking along the beach when I felt like I wanted to put my feet in the water. I wanted to feel the salt water on my feet. I actually got in to just above my ankle – this was a big step for me, especially with the water temperature in September!
During the time that we were home watching our services online, each Sunday I would watch the service from my home church of Woodlawn United Church in Dartmouth before watching the service from Beacon. A few weeks ago, Rev. Dr. Dale Skinner, one of the ministers at Woodlawn, preached about Joshua leading the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land with the Ark of the Covenant. The people were willing to get their feet wet in order to make progress. Some say that this Scripture passage is where this saying originated. The saying “getting your feet wet” means to venture into new territory or sometimes simply to get started.
Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt and after his death, Joshua became their leader. God tells Joshua to have the priests take the ark of the covenant to the Jordan River and to stand in the river. We are told in the story that the river was flooded so it must have seemed impossible to cross. Once the priests got their feet wet, God performed a miracle similar to the one when the Red Sea was parted so that the Israelites would have dry land to walk on. Not only does “getting your feet wet”, in this story, mean taking the first step but it also means that there was risk. But the Israelite priests trusted God and ventured into the water.
Ever since I heard this sermon on getting our feet wet, I’ve been intrigued by what that means for us as Christians. In 1580, John Lyly noted in his novel Euphues and his England, “I resemble those that having once wet their feet, care not how deep they wade.” In other words, often once we decide to try something, we are more apt to plunge in all the way. In our life as Christians, we are repeatedly call to venture into unknown and sometimes uncomfortable territory.
So, when I saw that the narrative lectionary reading for today was Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, I knew I could explore this concept of wet feet even more. This is a passage that is usually read closer to Good Friday and Easter. It is usually part of the Maundy Thursday service when we recall the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. However, as one commentator noted, John doesn’t say this is the Last Supper. In fact, he mentions that this event happens before the day before the Passover Feast. John does not mention Jesus breaking bread and drinking wine in symbolic form. Similarly, there is no mention of washing feet in the accounts of the Last Supper in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Their accounts of a supper with the disciples take place on the first day of Passover. The main focus of John’s account of a supper with the disciples is telling the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.
As mentioned in the introduction to the Scripture reading, washing feet was a common practice in Jesus’ day. The roads were filthy and people often traveled barefoot or wearing sandals which would allow for their feet to get dirty. As people entered homes, they washed their feet or had someone wash them for them. The people doing the washing were of lower status. So, during this feast, Jesus readies himself to wash the feet of the disciples. We don’t know if there were others there. There probably were servants. At the very least, one of the disciples could have been assigned the task. But Jesus insists.
First, let us gain some understanding into the mindset of Jesus at this occasion. In every Gospel account of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, we are told that Jesus knew what was going to happen to him. There are times when he speaks of his death by saying that the disciples won’t have him around forever or for long. He also foreshadows resurrection at times. Naturally, as humans, the disciples would not want to think about these things nor would they believe that someone would actually know about their own death, and even more unlikely, about their resurrection. They may think that this type of talk was cryptic or even nonsense. However, after Jesus’ death, I’m sure everything became much clearer and that is why the statements were documented in the gospels. The puzzle pieces began to fit together. At the beginning of the passage read this morning, we are told that Jesus is aware that his death is near. It’s the day before the Passover Festival. We are told that “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to God”. John adds, “He had always loved those in the world who were his own, and he loved them to the very end.” This speaks to how special this group of colleagues is to Jesus. We are also told that Judas Iscariot is there and is contemplating betraying Jesus. Jesus is aware of what is happening but I’m sure the disciples had no idea of the horrific events about to unfold.
So, in the middle of the meal, Jesus gets up from the table and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. There are a couple of things that are strange about this act. First of all, feet-washing was usually done by someone of lower status. Secondly, it was usually done when you entered a home and thirdly, it was usually unceremonious or unobtrusive. It was not something anyone made a deal about. It was not something that you talked through. Simon Peter was not the first disciple to be washed. We don’t know how many were ahead of him, but it seems that he was the first to object. We know from other accounts that Peter was loyal to Jesus and wanted things done right. He so wanted to please Jesus. Peter and Jesus argue with Peter saying that there is no way Jesus will wash his feet and Jesus saying that he is going to do something that the disciples will understand later. Then Jesus says, “If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple.” Peter realizes that Jesus is not going to back off so offers a compromise, “Do not wash only my feet, then. Wash my hands and head, too!” In Peter’s mind, it would be better if Jesus washed all of him than simply doing the subservient thing of washing his feet. Jesus replied that he only needed to wash the feet of those who were clean and that all but one of them (referring to Judas) was clean. It is to be noted that even though Jesus knew Judas would turn on him, he still acted in love towards him by washing his feet and including him.
This story is often told to show how humble Jesus was and how Jesus wants us to act in service to others. Throughout his life and his teaching, Jesus was always willing to help the marginalized and associated with those in society that others had outcast. In this one act, I think Jesus was setting more than an example. Jesus was literally getting his disciples’ feet wet. Jesus was sending a message to them that they would be the ones who would now have to carry on the work. They are the ones that are now going to have to try something new. They are the ones being called to action. He is dipping their toes in the water because soon, they are the ones that will have to plunge into doing the work and spreading the Word. The comment to Peter that he will no longer be a disciple if he doesn’t get his feet wet makes sense. If he is not willing to get his feet wet, then he can’t be a discipline. If he doesn’t get his feet wet, he’ll be an observer and not a doer. Ironically, it was Peter who, when he saw Jesus, walking on the Sea of Galilee and beckoning to him, was the only one to venture out of the boat. He was the only one willing to get his feet wet. The disciples were about to immerse themselves in what they were called to do. It would involve risk but with Jesus getting their feet wet, they were shown the way of humble service.
This morning, we are going to sing the hymn, “Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples.” Jesus is calling us to get our feet wet and to go out and serve. This means different things to different people. Much of our response depends on our abilities and our willingness. We all have abilities, not all the same, thank goodness. Remember the letter to the Corinthians that says we all function as one body but have different roles. Sometimes it’s easy to offer excuses as to why we will not participate in the work of the church. The truth is that no matter how old, or how busy, or how much you think you don’t know, there is always something you can do. How do you do that? Dip your toe in the water. Ask someone who is involved how you can help or how you can help more. As fellow Christians, we need to be able to get each other’s feet wet. Jesus said to his disciples, “You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” This is the second Sunday of Lent. As we journey together through this season, we are encouraged to adopt a practice of giving something up or more recently, the emphasis has been on taking on a new practice. This is a time when we can get our feet wet – a time when we can try something new or a time to give up a practice that isn’t serving us well. I urge you, as individuals, to consider where in your life you see yourself in service to God and to get started in that calling.
This is also a time as a church where we can assess our calling and our service. Many churches are finding that after two years of not being able to meet in person or to conduct church business as usual, people are backing off and sometimes away. We are all tired, however, the work does not stop. There is so much that we can be doing. It will still be important to take precautions to keep ourselves safe and healthy but we need to think forward. It’s time to get our feet wet and to energize ourselves. Here, at Beacon, we have started the process of Strategic Planning. This process has involved looking at our Vision Statement and also identifying areas where we excel and areas where we need to work a little harder. So far, we have explored helping with food and nutrition insecurity in our community with an emphasis on promoting locally grown or produced foods. We have also discussed communicating better with members of our congregation as well as the community. Specific goals have been set and some people have offered themselves to help achieve the goals. If you feel that you may be interested in one of these topics, please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with the team. The other area that we have yet to discuss is looking at our own structures and programs and seeing if there is a better or more efficient way to serve members of our congregation and the community. These goals will involve getting us out into the community as well as looking inward. There will be risk involved. It may not be easy but together we will ease into the water and before we know it, we will be immersed in purposeful, fulfilling work.
In January, I started to take part in our Moderator Richard Bott’s ‘Through the New Testament in Eighty Days Challenge’. This challenge involves reading specified passages of the New Testament from New Year’s Day until Easter. By Easter, those of us taking part will have read and reflected on the entire New Testament. As I was preparing for this service this week, I read the book of James. In James 2:14-18, James says, “ What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Jesus’ message to his disciples was that the time had come to start putting their faith into action. He demonstrated how to serve and said, “Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!” Amen.