I can still remember the best shower I think I ever took.
Fresh out of school, exams done, I’d jumped on a plane with a dozen others to spend three weeks volunteering at a church in Kenya. We’d arrived just as the country entered its third month of official drought. The rich red clay ground was parched, kicking up huge and regular clouds of bright orange dust. And, with the government limiting water supplies to the slum community in which we were staying, the alleys through tin homes were awash with human and animal waste.
We’d slept on classroom floors, dug foundations for a new extension, visited homes throughout the slum, and I’d sweated more than I ever thought possible.
At the end of my third week, as we prepared to leave, everything I owned was stained red from the dust; including me. That stuff reached places I didn’t know even existed on my own body, definitely out of reach of the small flannel and washing up bowl that had served as my only defence against ingrained dirt on my travels.
To this day, I can still picture the steady stream of bright, orangey red water running down the plughole as I stood in the shower, back home, after that crazy adventure.
Aside from getting my body squeaky clean, that shower was also like therapy – the cleansing of my head and heart, as well as my fingernails; as I stood processing the overwhelming poverty, grief and injustice I’d experienced alongside my new found Kenyan friends and their community. A new found sense of what it meant to be truly clean.
Today is Maundy Thursday – the day we remember Jesus celebrating his last Passover meal, the Last Supper, with his disciples.
The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘mandatum’, which means commandment – and from where we also get words like mandate and mandatory. It was during that last meal that Jesus laid down a new law to his disciples – one that superceded the old Jewish laws – to love and serve one another.
And what was the context for that law to be made? An act of washing and cleansing.
Jesus, yet again, turns the tables on societal norms and, as the disciples assemble for their meal, he strips down to his under clothes and picks up a bowl and a cloth to wash each of their feet.
I imagine the room falling silent, just for the briefest of moments, as the disciples stand, stunned by what they’re seeing, before the protests from his confused and resistant followers begin.
This was, after all, the lowest of the low.
We’re in the first century.
Open-toed sandals are the footwear of choice, long dusty roads and no other transport options than walking, with all manner of detritus and animal waste along the way. And, with meals being eaten in a semi-reclined position, nobody could bring their dirty feet to the table.
Definitely no electric shower to wash away that ingrained filth. No Lynx Jerusalem shower gel for the disciples.
So far as jobs went, this was right down there, amongst the blisters, bunions and fungal nail infections.
But Jesus knew what lay ahead.
He knew this would be his last meal with his disciples and he takes the opportunity to lay down his mandate for them in this profound act of practical and loving service.
In the shadow of the eternal cleansing that his impending death and resurrection would bring, he stoops to show them what it really means to love our neighbours as ourselves.
Today, the Church traditionally turns the tables on our wordly view of authority, as we remember Jesus’ commandment, his mandate for us all.
Pope Francis will wash the feet of young asylum seekers near Rome.
Bishop Rachel will be washing the feet of inmates in Eastwood Park Women’s Prison.
Today we’re encouraging our 40acts community to join in with the washing as their generous act for the day as part of the Church’s washday campaign. Bishops will be scrubbing toilets and doing the washing up, head teachers washing play equipment for their children, CEOs washing cars. You can follow some of the stories at #washday16.
Some will wash feet, others will stoop and humble themselves in a multitude of other ways as we, together, remember the mandate that Jesus gave us: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
“Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”