Wash your feet.

That’s probably not something you hear or say very often. We wear shoes and socks much of the time, and most of the walking we do is indoors or on paved roads and parking lots. You probably wash your feet when you take your shower every day, but most likely you don’t think about it even then. You just do it.

“Washing of the feet,” however, is something many of us think about during the Easter season – especially on Holy Thursday, when people of many religions relive the story of the Last Supper. This is when Jesus washed the feet of the apostles, modeling for them the service to others that he was instructing and expecting them to do.

Many churches’ Holy Thursday services include a ceremony of washing of the feet. I’ve never taken part in it at church, but I have at a different place and time. And also in an unexpected way.

When I was in Uganda for several weeks last October, I spent much of that time helping with a series of Lead Like Jesus Leadership Encounters. This is a program that uses the life of Christ as an example of servant leadership, and it includes a powerful ceremony that symbolizes the washing of the feet that Jesus did for the apostles. Each participant is given a small, square shoe cloth, and they are instructed to wash the feet – meaning rub the cloth over the shoes – of someone else in the room.

One of my jobs was to distribute the cloths at the start of this ceremony, and I always kept one for myself and “washed the feet” of other people who were taking part in the Encounter. Some of them washed my feet, as well. The experience was both humbling and empowering, no matter which end of the cloth you were on.

Some of our Encounters were in the town of Iganga, which is where my friend Tabitha grew up, and where many of her relatives still live. When we first arrived in Iganga, her father hosted a dinner for us at his home. We enjoyed an outdoor buffet, with tables and chairs set up in the front yard and protected by canopies from the light rain that fell for part of the afternoon. Shortly before we left, the light rain turned into a downpour, and by the time we climbed back on the bus, my legs, feet, and sandals were splattered with mud. It was caked and dry by the time we got to the hotel, and I couldn’t wait to get to my room and clean up.

As I rinsed the mud from my legs and feet, enjoying the feel of the warm water, it occurred to me that I was having my own “washing of the feet” ceremony. I smiled at the thought, but then was struck by a powerful revelation: This is what it was like in Jesus’ time.

Not the indoor plumbing and running water, obviously, but the washing of the feet. It wasn’t a symbolic gesture or ceremony. It was an important and necessary part of the day – a day in which feet and sandals were the normal mode of transportation, and the roads that people traveled were dirty, dusty, and at times muddy. To wash someone’s feet was to take care of their everyday needs, like feeding them or clothing them or tending to them when they were sick or injured.

It suddenly gave everything a new meaning for me. I had traveled 8,000 miles to come to Africa, and it now also felt as if I had traveled 2,000 years back in time. I understood something I thought I already knew, and I saw the meaning and the reality behind something I had always considered to be simply a symbolic gesture.

I am reliving all this as I attend the Easter liturgies at my church this year, taking part in the ceremonies and rituals of the season. I am seeing and enjoying them all in a new way, with my eyes, my mind, and my heart open wider than ever before. And with clean, happy feet.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on April 5, 2012.
© Betty Liedtke, 2012