Here's another Lenten meditation, this one for Maundy Thursday, first delivered in 2004:
Scripture reference: John 13:1-17
It was an ordinary meal, as meals go. They had eaten with Jesus on many occasions—in the homes of the faithful, like Mary and Martha; at table with tax collectors and other undesirables, where they always managed to raise many an eyebrow and the ire of the religious authorities. They remembered well at least one meal on a crowded hillside dense with the smell of sweat and the sound of murmured confusion after an afternoon of sermons and storytelling. They were able to feed themselves and the crowd with nothing but the meager offerings of a young boy’s sack lunch, and still have food left over.
At first, it seemed extraordinary that they would be called by name to leave their boats, their accounting charts, their family homes, and follow this extraordinary man who looked like an common carpenter but said and did such uncommon things.
They knew that their lives, their deaths, the joys and struggles in between, didn’t mean a thing to those who held the power and status in their society. They were used to it by now, though. It was part of their everyday lives. Many among their peers had become complacent, some cooperative even complicit with the ruling Greco-Roman culture.
And then comes this man whose message and mission change everything. He interrupts the everyday-ness of their lives—walking out to their fishing boats on the very water into which they cast their nets, drinking from the same cup as a Samaritan woman, eating with expendables like them.
That he would invite them to dinner, be a guest in their homes, allow any unclean, untouchable, unlovable character in town to interrupt their important work just to comfort and heal them, teach and challenge them, at first seemed quite odd.
But by the time Jesus and his closest Disciples came to this meal, shortly before the observance of the Passover, they considered it quite normal to eat with their teacher, the Messiah, the One called by God to deliver them from their sufferings, just as God had delivered their ancestors from captivity in Egypt.
Yes, it was all quite ordinary…until something extraordinary happened. In the middle of the meal, Jesus got up, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around him and knelt before them, intent on washing their feet.
How strange…the master serving the followers. Once again, he had turned everything upside down…all the accepted thinking about social structures and status and power in their culture. They were awakened once again from their complacency.
We live in extraordinary times, but it has all become quite ordinary to us in our day-to-day living. We’ve become complacent, even cooperative with the social structures that confine us, complicit with a power structure that oppresses many in order for a few to rise in stature. Wars and rumors of wars blaring at us from wide-screen TVs; the faces of people living in abject poverty and desolation clouding our peripheral vision and obstructing our straight path down our neighborhood streets; forms of child abuse and exploitation that seem to become more horrifying and devastating by the day jumping out from the headlines and sound bites over our morning coffee…these all could seem out of the ordinary, if they were not so common.
We have technology that gives us the power to destroy the world several fold and the delicate touch to repair the tiniest heart inside the tiniest little body, even before she leaves the protection of her mother’s womb. It’s really quite extraordinary.…But it has become just part of the ordinariness of our ordinary lives.
I am reminded of a recent doctor’s appointment. It was pretty ordinary, as doctor’s appointments go. By now, I am used to living with diabetes, although at first, it was anything but ordinary. I was diagnosed on a Good Friday over 10 years ago. I spent the weekend feeling sorry of myself, staring pathetically at the chocolate bunnies, longing to bite their heads off one by one, saving their feet to nibble on later.
But counting carbs, pricking my fingers to measure my blood sugar, having every part of my body—literally from my eyes to my toes—poked, prodded and penetrated had become routine, as had the bevy of doctor’s numbers I kept in my appointment book.
It was my first visit to this particular doctor, the first doctor I had seen since moving to DC. Everything about the exam was familiar, no surprises in the questions, the warnings, the referrals to specialists, the cold stethoscope against my breast bone with the request to breathe deeply.
“I see you managed to mangle your feet,” she said, glancing down at my bare heels cracked and dry and my exposed toes, the cold skin peeling on the sides. I was used to that kind of comment. There was plenty of evidence to reveal my bad habit of pulling and tugging at the cracks and crevices instead of treating the tough, dry skin. But I wasn’t expecting what came next.
(Smacking sound with hands)
Suddenly, she hit the soles of my feet and admonished, “Don’t do that!”
What a strange thing for a doctor to do. And I had just begun to like her. But before I could object to her shocking gesture, she did something even more extraordinary.
She took my feet in her hands and cradled them gently and murmured “Don’t do that” in more soothing tones. I had the impression of gentle hands cupping an injured bird to protect it from the elements and its own bad judgment.
She didn’t say much more, just referred me to a good podiatrist and recommended a home remedy for dry skin. But what I heard her say clearly in her actions was, “Arlene, you are worthy of love and capable of loving, even loving yourself.” I heard her say, “Allow me to care for you. I want you to be well and whole.”
As I got up from the exam table that day, I thought about how radical her care for me was against the backdrop of what most of us have come to experience—and accept—as assembly line healthcare.
Do you see a parallel here in this story of Jesus washing the feet of his Disciples? Have I made my case that Jesus’ ministry was radical—bringing the extraordinary to bear on the ordinary? Well, let me make it plainer: the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry was not in turning water to wine, or healing the sick. It wasn’t even in his raising the dead. What was radically extraordinary about Jesus’ ministry was the way he cradled the hand of the Samaritan woman at the well, redefining her relationship with God and to the world—you are lovable and capable of loving.
It was how he cradled the faces of the children who flocked around him, telling the disapproving adults—these are my children, they are not expendable; they are precious.
Jesus offered his Disciples something extraordinary in the midst of an ordinary meal when he cradled their feet redefining their relationship, asking them to be the servant and the served.
At a meal described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus cradled the ordinary bread and the cup and redefined his relationship to God and ours to one another. “When you eat this bread and drink from this cup, we are one, I am in you and you are a part of everyone around this table. There is no longer separation or alienation one from another.”
What a radical, extraordinary message. It’s not about the occasional miracle, but about plain, old, every day, ordinary relationship! Jesus’ ministry, his life and his death, his resurrection…are all about relationship. Defining relationships, challenging our concepts of them, showing us how to nurture them, was his ministry, his gift to us.
It is in the way Jesus cradles us…each of us, calling us by name, inviting us home to dine, redefining who we are by reminding us of whose we are. Imagine, just for a moment, that Jesus is cradling your feet in his hands. Feel the warmth, the gentle touch of his fingertips. Don’t worry about how your feet look or smell. If your feet hurt, let the cool of the water and the rhythm of the massaging carry the pain away. Don’t even look at your feet just now, but into the eyes of Christ, who loves you. Listen. What’s he saying? It’s a message just for you, calling you out of the ordinariness of your life into a new life, one that is quite, quite extraordinary.