Our element today from creation is fire; our biblical story is from John about footwashing -with water. It is easy to see that water puts out fire – but today, in the midst of the pandemic, at the beginning of Holy Week, instead of water putting out fire, these two combined point to suffering.
I was about 12 years old when I began to understand the suffering of Jesus. All that church talk sunk in and I cried, I sobbed, as Jesus’ suffering became real to me.
Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas my treason, Jesus hath undone thee.
Twas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.
I crucified thee. (Ah Holy Jesus, v2)
In the Seekers class we read that Anabaptists understand baptism as a three stranded cord – water, spirit and blood. The water we know, it is the physical symbol of new birth and transformation. Through the Holy Spirit we become disciples and are connected to the faith community. And the blood? That is suffering, the fire that can burn with passion, and at the same time cause deep suffering. As Anabaptist as I am, I would rather leave this blood and fire behind, with the martyrs.
When I discovered feminist theology, I was grateful to have a different way to understand human suffering and the suffering of Jesus. While there is plenty of suffering in the world, I have tried not to make Jesus’ suffering the focus of my faith (or our faith life together.) I have instead tried to work for justice, which does lead us toward suffering, or alongside suffering or maybe even to suffer ourselves. But I wonder, have I tried to wash my hands of the suffering that Jesus endured? (Dip hands in water)
If I wash my hands of Jesus’ suffering, do I also wash my hands of other suffering, the suffering of people, creatures, creation?
The gospel of John is the only gospel that mentions footwashing. In John, it seems Jesus is following what he learned from Mary, (sister of Martha and Lazarus.) Mary lovingly anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, shortly after Lazarus is resurrected. Perhaps Jesus also wants to anoint the feet of his beloved disciples but as an impoverished prophet – all he has is water. He follows Mary’s model as he can; he washes their feet, serving those he loves. As he washes the disciples’ feet, he takes on the suffering of others – not the disciples suffering but those who would ordinarily do this work, the servants – who are not even mentioned.
This biblical concept of washing feet is ironic. Even as we are getting clean, it is messy: theologically, metaphorically, and literally as we splash and get ourselves wet, get the floor wet. It’s messy.
In these pandemic days, hand washing seems more important than footwashing. We wash our hands as a protection for ourselves. We wash our hands to protect other people from what we might unknowingly pass on to them. We stay home and stay away from the people we love. In this small way, we participate in the suffering of others. The hope is that this removes the suffering from someone else. Can we truly serve others without taking on suffering ourselves?
I am hardly qualified to talk about suffering; I have suffered so little in my life. This pandemic points out my privilege quite clearly. I have a home, easy access to food, work I love, a cheerful, loving family. I am not suffering.
And at the same time I know there are local families who don’t have enough food for their children, that are losing their homes, that are losing loved ones and co-workers and friends. Besides the fear of the virus, there are people living in fear of violence in their own homes and people for whom anxiety and addictions and mental health conditions make life almost unbearable every day. Injustice and suffering are part of life across the street and around the world.
I invite you to take the bowl of water you may have with you. I invite us to wash our hands. If there is someone with you in your house, you might take the risk to invite them to wash your hands for you.
We wash our hands not to rid ourselves of suffering but to join ourselves to it.
– We remember those who lack access to clean water during this pandemic and every day.
– We remember those who cannot socially or physically distance themselves because of incarceration or homelessness.
– As we feel the water, we remember those who find themselves suddenly unemployed, hungry, isolated.
– We wash our hands in solidarity with those who suffer in fear and pain and grief.
– We wash our hands as a way to commit ourselves to being with those who suffer, so they do not suffer alone.
– We wash our hands in hope that the misery of suffering can one day be transformed.
- We wash our hands in hope that we will be transformed.
- We wash our hands and we remember Jesus, who washed his disciples feet, who suffered and who through the mystery of Christ still suffers with us.
– We wash our hands and we look toward the day when there will be no more suffering, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Rev 21:4)
But for this week, we sit with the suffering: the fire, and the water.