Mar 28, 2023 | The Rev. Candy LaBar

…You also should do as I have done to you”    —John 13:15

Holy Week is nearly upon us… and in many of our settings, Maundy Thursday worship will include the ritual of footwashing.

On Maundy Thursday, we remember Jesus’ final meal and final gathering with his disciples. We remember the moment when he knelt before his disciples, taking on the role of the most humble of servants and washing his disciples’ feet. We remember that he called them—and us—to do likewise.

Over time, Christians have recalled and reenacted that moment through the ritual of footwashing. But every pastor and worship leader knows that in the best of times, the logistics of footwashing are complicated.

There’s the removal of shoes and socks. And what do you do about pantyhose? What if someone’s feet are ticklish? Use soap or no soap? How often should we change the water? Who’s going to toss the towels into the washing machine? Not insurmountable problems, of course… but complications in an already-busy season.  

Then there’s the question, “Do you wash everyone’s feet, or just a few to represent the ritual?” If it’s all the feet, then time is not on your side. If it’s only a few, then those attending worship on Maundy Thursday worship will find themselves in a “spectator” rather than a “participant” role. Footwashing is such an intimately tactile experience. So, how can a pastor include everyone in that experience?

Then COVID complicated the logistics even further. Many of us wondered in April 2020, “How do you wash feet while maintaining six feet of distance?” And now, three years later, many of us continue to wonder, “How can you offer footwashing to those worshipping via livestream or recorded video?”

Footwashing a powerful but practical act

At Wesley UMC in Bethlehem, we began to reflect on the roots of footwashing. Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet was a powerful yet humble symbolic act…but also, a deeply practical one. Sandals were the footwear of the day. Roads were dusty. Feet were dirty. They often needed washing upon entering someone’s home.

As Jesus took on the role of the lowliest of lowly servants by washing his disciples’ feet. Thus, he offered a powerful lesson on humility and love. But he also was meeting a basic, practical need.

This pastor is reminded: Jesus didn’t wash feet in a vacuum. There’s context here. Jesus washed feet not because footwashing is so intrinsically holy. Jesus washed feet because feet got dirty.  Jesus washed feet in a time and place in which a humble footwashing met a practical need. So, we at Wesley UMC began to wonder, “How can we, too, meet a practical need? And maybe even bless some feet in the process?”

For the past three years, we’ve “reimagined footwashing,” by seeking to meet some practical needs and bless some very real feet in our community. We’ve done this through community partnerships and collection drives.

In our first two years, we challenged our congregation to collect children’s socks for our annual “We Got Your Back” backpack giveaway program, a summer outreach program in which we offer backpacks, school supplies, socks, and underwear to children in our community. In those first two years, we collected hundreds of pairs of socks, brought them to worship during Holy Week, and prayed prayers of blessing over the socks (and their future recipients) during our Maundy Thursday worship.

Footwashing reimagined through service to others

Yet, we wanted to continue to reimagine our reimaginings. This year, we initiated a partnership with Victory House, a local organization that offers shelters and transitional resources to men—and in particular, veterans—experiencing homelessness in our community.

We talked with their staff about their most pressing needs, and together we chose our Footwashing 2023 project: Shower Shoes. With forty residents using communal showers, a gift of shower shoes would make an immediate and practical impact on the lives of people in our community.

We’ve set a goal of 80 pairs of shower shoes—not flimsy flip-flops, but solid shower shoes. That’s at least one pair for each resident, and a generous stock for future residents, too.

Our congregants can purchase shoes in local stores or use our Amazon Wish List to send their gifts directly to the church. Once again, we’ll collect the shoes through Holy Week, and pray over them during Maundy Thursday worship.

And we’re looking ahead. What shape will Footwashing 2024 take? Athletic shoes for area youth sports programs? Pedicures for cancer patients who need a lift? Socks for the cold weather shelter?

With each idea, we’re building new partnerships with community resource organizations, even as we live out the spirit of footwashing as practical servanthood in our day.  

“For I have set you an example,” Jesus says, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15, NRSV). Jesus, we’re going to take you up on that.

Want to support Wesley’s Footwashing ministry for Maundy Thursday? Visit their Amazon Wish List:

*The Rev. Candy LaBar is the lead pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Bethlehem, Pa.