First used at Diaconal Convocation, 2010. This could be used in Holy Week
If using the narrative ‘The Water Carrier’ try and have one person read the water carrier’s account and other voices to read the ‘Contemporary Echoes’
Beverly Gaventa describes this passage as a ‘commentary on Jesus’ death’. This makes a certain kind of sense. The passage, as Pete Phillips said, marks a radical shift in John’s narrative – moving from a blow-by-blow account of Jesus’ life – to extensive reflections about his death. The whole of John’s gospel does point to the death of Christ, weaving the theme of his cosmic significance in from the very start.
Whilst we do remain shocked by the basic, earthy act of washing someone’s feet, my brother in law who has a phobia about feet– is probably the only person I know who would come close to understanding the shock of the disciples at Christ’s actions.
The scandal of foot-washing has little power to scandalize most of us because we have come to understand this action in the context of the incarnation.
The cosmic Christ – the Word, the Logos – the one without whom not a single thing was created is getting down and dirty amongst human beings. The one that Graham Kendrick describes as ‘having flung stars into space’ is born in a shit-ridden stable, in poverty, fear and dereliction. Are you shocked by my language? Tony Campola, the American evangelist was preaching to a congregation about poverty and said this, ‘Everyday thousands of children die in their own shit’ and what is most scandalous is that you are more shocked that I used that word, rather than the deaths of so many.’
We miss the point of incarnation if we do anything other than pretend that Jesus entered this world to share in all it’s messiness as well as all its glory.
Being a book based on what we might call a platonic or dualistic understanding of the order of things, John goes furthest in describing the enormity of the gap between the cosmic divine and the base earthiness of the human Jesus.
The foot-washing hints at John’s desperate intention to help the reader understand just what it meant for the Word of God to be made low.
As he turns towards Jerusalem and all the inevitability of humiliation and death – Jesus takes a pro-active step in choosing humiliation before it is heaped upon him. He chooses to show the disciples that his death is part of the different kind of realm that he is part of and that they can share in.
Gaventa suggests that when Jesus takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself and puts on his robe again – the writer is reminding us of the good shepherd in John 10, who lays down his life in order to take it again.
In the conversation with Peter, we are drawn into an understanding of discipleship that recognizes that there is no other way to be fully part of Jesus – to share in his realm – than to go with him to and beyond the cross. We have all the privilege of hindsight – Peter is a gift to the story-teller because his apparent ignorance is used a way of enlightening the reader – and possibly making them feel better about their own ignorance!
Perhaps it is too much of a stretch to say that the action of this story is truly a metaphor for death – but it certainly sits in the context of Jesus’ own prediction of his death and his promise to Peter that in the future he will understand what all this is about.
So we have a different kind of realm from the power-hungry, hierarchies of the human world. We have a discipleship that is caught up with the humiliation, suffering and death of Christ – and we hope, with the hope of resurrection beyond. For me, however, it is the earthy, hands on, intimate, messy action at the centre of the story that has the most significance. This is the essence of incarnation – of God with us.
There is nothing saccharine or sanitized about this Christ, this Jesus - a man who can command a crowd, feed a crowd, stir up a crowd, a man who can still storms, raise the dead and heal chronic disease – gets down on his knees and comes into contact with the corns, calluses and carbuncles of human living.
Where do the corns rub today? Where does our mission, our ministry reflect the truly incarnational presence of Christ that I believe continues to refresh, cleanse and heal in a hurting, aching, tired world today?
As I reflected on that question I was struck that someone who might help us to explore that question is one of the missing characters in the story – the one who brought the water. So we are going to hear her story now, but she will pause from time to time to allow some other, contemporary stories to be told.
The Water Carrier
I carried the water, every day, jar poised precariously on my shoulder, taking care that not one precious drop be spilt. It’s a long walk to the well just outside our village, my feet find the same worn grooves in the path that they always have. Perhaps my mother and grandmother and my grandmother’s all the way back to Ruth have moved like a flowing river along this path.
You have to shimmy when you walk – those of us who carry water have a certain sway to our hips. It’s a way of balancing the heavy jar and ensuring that the water circles within rather than slopping over the edge. There’s a rhythm to my walk, a rhythm to my days, a rhythm to this reassuringly mundane life.
The children in the village know about rhythm, they bang sticks on the water jars that line up ready to be collected. Bang, bang, smash, smash bang. There’s one boy who plays the same beat every time – it sort of goes ‘dance, dance, I like to dance’. Well, they are the words I hear in my head – perhaps it’s because I do like to dance, even if most of the time my dancing partner is a great big jar that is either empty or full of water!
The festival, Passover, was approaching and people where beginning to gather for meals and the telling of the old stories. Stories about the way Yahweh interferes in people’s lives. Sorry, I know that’s a bit sacrilegious but that’s how it felt when I met Jesus – as though nothing would be the same again, not as ordinary, not as mundane, not as predictable. Somehow the rhythm had changed and I’m sure it had something to do with a different kind of religion from the one I know that is about rules and fear and jumping through hoops.
I’d brought four jugs of water home, ready for the feast. Festivals are hard work, lots of ritual washing, lots of cooking and mountains of washing – clothes, cloths, bedding, plates and cups. Normally that would be plenty but not this time.
Jesus came to the house with his friends, an interesting bunch – odd really them all being together, a well-healed tax-collector, big lumbering fishermen and the rest. They laughed together a lot and told stories. When Jesus talked the others all listened. I did too, from here in the back room – out of sight, out of mind. I was run off my feet sorting out the food and wine, clearing away the pots.
It went oddly quiet in the big room so I stopped what I was doing to see what was happening.
Jesus had got up, stripped off his robe and wrapped a towel around himself. What on earth was this all about? I couldn’t believe it – he actually knelt in front of his friends, each in turn, picked up their feet, rested them on the towel and washed them. I was too intrigued to be as appalled as I should have been. It was bad enough that he was pouring water – and might I add, lots of it – over their feet – he was actually touching them, rubbing the muck off with his hands, drying them with the towel.
The big guy, Simon Peter, tried to stop him – I don’t blame him. It’s shameful I wouldn’t let the lowest servant in my household touch my feet, let alone rub them. Talk about humiliating! What did he think he was playing at?
Mind you as I watched, his friends listened to him and they began to copy him – nervously at first, then they seemed to quite enjoy the attention and the intimacy.
That’s what struck me most (well apart from how many extra trips I would have to make to the well that day) – it was how intimate it all seemed. It was like a closed circle – inside the circle they were privileged, they knew each other well and knew Jesus, understood something about how special he was. It seemed like a perfect little community, I couldn’t see any cracks, though one guy looked less comfortable than the rest. Mind you, what do I know? I was outside the circle, no way into it for me. As I watched, I suddenly felt very sad. It was like I was watching something through a window, disconnected. I felt unwelcome, an outsider.
All the weirdness of touching dirty feet, of invading the space of another person, of meeting their eyes while they performed this demeaning task – all that seemed less important than the bonds in that group, their special way of doing things, their peculiar habits – rituals you might call them.
I didn’t feel I could be part of what they had. When Jesus got up to leave he came over to me and thanked me for looking after them. As he handed me the towel his hand caught my arm and he looked directly at me and seemed to know all that I was thinking. He didn’t say a word but I felt as though he had washed me and as though I didn’t need to be in their tight little circle after all – his influence was not limited to that group – but seemed to stretch out beyond them, beyond my home, even beyond my little village – like a river in full flood.
Where does our mission as a church and our ministry as Christians reflect the truly incarnational presence of Christ that continues to refresh, cleanse and heal in a hurting, aching, tired world today?
Michaela Youngson May 2010