I told you I was trouble

During supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from supper, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. 

John 13:3-10a

Every year about this time, I can’t help but remember Jules, the character played by Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, saying to Vincent, the character played by John Travolta, “Man, I got my foot massage technique down. I don’t tickle or nothing.” As a person who will was several pairs of feet this evening, I hope I don’t tickle or nothing. That comment takes place in the context of a dispute over just how intimate a foot massage really is. When Jules asks Vincent, “would you give another man a foot massage?” the matter is settled. (I suppose we are to assume without being told that both characters are heterosexual.)

Feet are intimate things. In some cultures, it is extraordinarily rude to point your feet at someone. The shoes which were thrown at George H.W. Bush during that press conference in Iraq were intended to cause insult as much as damage. So there is a lot of energy involved in touching someone’s feet. There is a sense of power involved in making someone else touch your feet.

For Simon Peter and his friends, foot washing was a servant’s job. (For “servant” read “slave” or at least someone so far down the economic scale that they had to serve in someone else’s home.) If you had status over the person washing your feet, you could tell them to do it. You didn’t owe them anything. If the person washing your feet was your peer, let alone the Son of Man, then you might feel like you are in their debt.

Unless, of course, you are helpless to stop them. Peter feels compelled to make a case that he’s so dirty that he needs to be totally cleansed by Jesus. If he’s totally no good, he has no power to resist. Now, Peter may or may not suffer from low self-esteem, but plenty of the rest of us do. For some, a belief in their inherent unworthiness can become the slippery slope to all sorts of regrettable behavior.

The late Amy Winehouse may have fallen into this category. Her astounding voice and the attention it drew to her never seemed to be enough evidence for her to believe in her own worth. There remained in her a deep distrust of the adulation of fans or the affection of friends and lovers. And still, at the center, so many of us saw a passion for life that we hoped would survive. Some may have tried to draw it out with simple kindness or radical forgiveness.

Why is that so hard to accept? Not just for Amy Winehouse but for any of us? Despite the availability of badly needed groceries, why do so many people experience entering a food pantry as one of the worst experiences of their lives? In a lot of cases, probably too many cases, that has to do with the ones who are giving the help lording it over the ones in need. It is almost as if, by accepting someone’s assistance, we become owned by them.

But Jesus doesn’t want to own Peter. He wants to give him a share of himself. That’s not easy for Peter or any of us to wrap our heads around. This is not an invasion of Peter’s privacy, it is a sharing of intimacy. It’s a statement that says we are welcomed to be in relationship with this one who exceeds all of our understanding. Like Peter, I imagine that I would be likely to respond, “Who, me? But you know that I’m no good, right?