It’s sort of amazing that one of the gospels we quote from the most (aka John 3:16) also contains the communion practice we practice the least. Foot washing is a liturgical act we do once a year (and sometimes not even that often). Yet we know foot washing mattered to the community around John because they made sure it appeared in their version of Jesus’ story. The stories contained in the gospels do more than describe events that happened in the past. These stories also reveal which parts of Jesus’ story mattered the most to specific communities. Those stories were then ritualized as a way to make Jesus’ story their own. John’s community did not record a communion moment like the other three (and Paul) did. Instead, John highlighted a ritual his community might have done weekly: foot washing (John 13:1-17,31-35).

Foot washing is a very personal and intimate act. Unless we’re a doctor or a podiatrist, we rarely touch other people’s feet or let other people touch ours. Right now, in our cultural context, the question of touch is a big issue. We’re having a wider debate about what kind of touch (even some that might be viewed as affectionate) is acceptable. Part of that conversation, I think, is about ownership. We’re debating the desire of “person A” to hug or kiss-hello “person B” trumps the desire for person B to give permission to be handled in that way. Physical touch, when uninvited, is haunting and terrifying. But when that touch is consensual, a connection and commitment can be formed that transcends time. In Jesus’ day, only slaves washed people’s feet. The slaves had no control over their body and had to touch others. A person who was washed by a slave knew the slave could not say no. But the person who was being washed could, in theory, step away. They knew, automatically, they were superior to that slave. They consented to being touched because they had ownership over their own body and the slave did not. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet shocked everyone. Even though Jesus chose to wash others, he’s entering into the role of the person who could not say no. A slave had no control over the violence done to their body. And, as we’ll see on Good Friday, the Roman Empire made sure Jesus had no control over his, too.

If having your feet washed makes you uncomfortable, then you are already starting to get the point of the story. If you choose to stay in your pews tonight instead of coming to the front, your experience is similar to what Peter felt 2000 years ago. In this place and in this church, you will always have ownership over your own body. We will not ask you to do something to violate your bodily autonomy. Jesus’ gift of communion, his literal body for us, allows us to finally own what has been given to us: we are made in God’s image and that is something no one can take away from us.