Saturday, 19 March 2011

John 13.1-17

Bible Study

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[1] describes this passage as a ‘commentary on Jesus’ death’. This makes a certain kind of sense. The passage, as Pete Phillips[2] 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.

Contemporary Echo 1

I walk further everyday to find water. The well close to the village has dried up and the pump that the aid agency put in has stopped working. In fact even the old reliable river has dried to a muddy trickle.

Someone told me that, about 100 miles away, a big company has bought some land and is moving the direction of the river that runs through it – that’s our river, our water supply. Our children’s feet are not muddy anymore – just covered in fine dry dust and we cannot spare water to wash their faces, let alone their feet.

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!

Contemporary Echo 2

My son, Mark, was killed. Shot dead in an alley just behind where he lives. You might think he deserved it – he wasn’t always a good boy, but he had a son Joey – he was starting to turn his life around. All he did that night was go out to help a neighbour who was having trouble with his bike and, wrong place, wrong time, wrong bloody nightmare.

She ran to get me – his girlfriend. I picked up my boy, he’d gone already. His blood was all over me – my skirt, my hands and my legs. Don’t matter how often I wash it’s still there.

I helped fill in the grave – that’s my people’s tradition. We sang ‘Over my head’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ at the graveside and our minister, she wept with me. I’ll always remember that, her crying and me crying and all the aunties cryin’ – it was like a river. God I wish I could wash this all away.

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.

Contemporary Echo 3

You know filling in asylum application forms is not easy when English is a long way from being your first language. So you get it wrong and they send it back, so you start again and you send it in and you’ve missed the statutory limit on how long you have to register and it goes on and on.

It was in the middle of all this I saw a sign over a church, in Southall, it said something in Urdu about help with immigration issues. I didn’t think they’d help, me being a Sikh, but the project at the back of the church really helped.

I felt like for once my hands were not covered in ink from filling in forms and my feet were not aching from standing in queue after queue.

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.

Contemporary Echo 4

I was absolutely ratted, out on the Bigg Market, Friday night, like yer do you know. My mate Tanya, some mate she turned out to be, had set me up with a right idiot who couldn’t hold his booze.

She cleared off just as he threw up all over me red patent leather wedges – you know the sort, look dead expensive, but you can get em for a tenner at TK Max.

Any how, there I am stinking to high heavens, falling off my now minging red patent leather wedges, crying me eyes out – making just a little bit of an exhibition of meself.

Along comes this wifey and two blokes in uniform – they weren’t Bissies mind you – not even them plonker specials. They said they were Street Pastors, whatever that is.

Anyhow one of em whips out a load of wet wipes and asks me if I want to clean up – so I did – well I tried but I kept loosing my balance, couldn’t stay upright on my red patent leather wedges. Do you know they took me over to a bench and the woman gets down on one knee and wipes my feet for me? I thought I was dreaming. I was swearing about the state of me shoes mind, said they were full of the lumpy stuff and I couldn’t walk on em. Now you won’t believe this – the women gets out a pair of flip flops and gives em to me. When I say that I’ve only me taxi fair home, she says ‘eh don’t worry about it pet’ they’re a present.

Well, you canny say fairer than that?

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.

Contemporary Echo 5

You know I’ve walked past that building every day for years, decades. I used to take my kids to playgroup there – in a room at the back, when my wife was too ill. She suffers with her nerves – The doctors used to call it manic depression – now it’s Bi-polar. Whatever you call it it’s a pain to live with.

I used to look in at the church through the door on the few occasions it was open – always seemed a bit imposing, a bit mysterious. I was never quite sure what went on there. I certainly never thought I’d want to go in, let alone be welcomed.

Well, the kids are grown up now and doing really well. My wife? Well good days and bad – actually its more like good 6 months and bad 6 months and when it’s bad, it’s bad. Meds help but there’s only so many pills you can take and when she’s on the top of the curve she stops taking them because she thinks she can conquer the world.

She dismantled the computer the other day, she’d bought ‘build your own PC for dummies’ or such like and thought she’d increase our RAM (whatever that is). Trouble is before she put it back together she went into a sharp dip and now we have bits of useless IT all over the floor!

A couple of years ago they changed the front of the church. Got rid of those massive dark doors and put some lovely etched glass in and they made a light and airy welcoming area. It was so lovely I asked if I could go in. There was a man there wearing a blue uniform, said he was a deacon, and he showed me round. I found him really easy to talk to and told him about my wife. He told me the church had a group for people who lived with those suffering mental health problems – a ‘time out’ group he called it. I go nearly every week, just for a couple of hours, we meet and have coffee and cake and talk about how mental health has affected our lives. I’ve learnt about all sorts of support I never knew about.

Now when I pass the church, I don’t feel like it’s a weird place – it feels like somewhere I belong.

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.

Discussion Question

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

[1] Beverly R Gaventa in ‘Texts for Preaching Year B’, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

[2] In his Bible study on this passage at Diaconal Convocation 2010.