If I get to heaven I’ll look for Grandma’s hands

After Jesus had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:12-17

I really don’t know why I came to Bill Withers’ music relative late. It’s possible that I missed out on his most creative period in the early 1970s because I was just a baby. Withers himself came to music relatively late, having his first hit record with “Ain’t No Sunshine” at 32. Almost his Jesus year. And if you are wondering, yes, it is that “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a song I usually associate with The Neville Brothers.

There’s also “Lean On Me,” which was a big hit song for Club Nouveau in 1986 and an even bigger movie with Morgan Freeman and Robert Guillaume in 1989. (For the record, I spelled Mr. Guillaume’s name correctly before I looked it up. BENSON FOREVER!) Bill Withers also wrote “Just the Two of Us,” “Lovely Day,” and plenty of extraordinary songs that have gone relatively unacknowledged.

After ten years in the music business, Withers declined to renew his recording contract with Columbia Records because he was tired of being told how to record songs that would sell. He wanted to record songs that sounded good. This decision effectively ended his career in music, but in the 2009 documentary “Still Bill,” he did not seem to have any regrets.

Maybe it was the perspective of a performer who was relatively mature when he got his start, or maybe it was the experience of having grown up in Slab Fork, West Virginia that prevented Withers from being seduced by the trappings of fame. In his 1973 live recording at Carnegie Hall, Withers tells the story of being put in charge of caring for his grandmother at age 5. I suspect this arrangement may have been more of an honorary position, a way for young Bill to accept the watchful eye of his grandma. It did have the practical effect of allowing him to learn the ways she contributed to the care of an isolated Appalachian community. If the song has any basis in reality, his grandmother’s strong but gentle set of hands were the kind that could hold eternal hope in a moment of shattering despair.

We can only guess where she learned to do that, but as a churchgoer, she would certainly have been familiar with Jesus’s decision to use his hands to hold his disciples in a moment of crisis. The act of washing feet is so personal and so intimate that it still makes us uncomfortable. (Consider the conversation in the movie Pulp Fiction about the propriety of giving another man’s wife a foot massage.) Jesus’s action is so evocative that Peter initially refuses, relenting only when Jesus threatens to kick him out of the band.

Peter has to allow himself to be vulnerable to Jesus, to trust Jesus with his scaly, hairy, stinky feet. By not drawing back in revulsion or taking the opportunity to tickle Peter, Jesus gives an example of what it means to be present and trustworthy when another person is taking a risk. It is like teaching a five year old in Slab Fork, West Virginia that his grandmother’s hands will always be there to catch him, to soothe him, to pick him up when he falls. That kind of assurance is certainly worth more than all the gold records that Columbia can produce.