February 9, 2021 - Roger W. Lowther
After the earthquake, one of the most startling things I heard was: “Go away! Leave us alone! Too . . . many . . . volunteers!”
We had just entered the high school gymnasium of a temporary shelter in the city of Iwaki. I turned to see a young man sitting on a cardboard box. He appeared to be slightly handicapped, with one leg shorter than the other. But it was his face, full of rage, that I noticed most.
Time after time, strangers barged into this man’s “room.” In that brightly lit flourescence, he had no privacy, and he was obviously sick of it.
Startled by the greeting, but not sure what to do, I followed the volunteers walking in front of me and placed the box I was holding with the others. The volunteer team proceeded to lay out big blue tarps, line up chairs, and set up buckets of freshly drawn hot spring water, still warm to the touch.
The city of Iwaki is unique in that hot spring water can be purchased anywhere in the city. With the similar feel of a gas station, you can draw hot mineral-infused water fresh from the ground. After the earthquake when city water stopped flowing, these water sources became especially important. As volunteers, we couldn’t provide a place to bathe at the shelters, but we could at least show love through washing feet. It was meant to be just a little act of kindness. We got down on our knees, and people began to line up.
The night before Jesus’s death, he got down on his knees and washed feet. This was an urgent time, not unlike the urgency we now experienced. Why on earth did Jesus choose to spend the night before his death washing feet? Weren’t there more important things to do? Jesus knew what was coming, and there are so many things he could have been doing to prepare: preaching a sermon or writing a message. I was tired and stressed, so maybe I wasn’t thinking straight, but if it was me, I think I would have wanted to take a nap, to have the strength and clarity of thought to say and do the right things.
However, Jesus washed feet.
He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. . . . When he finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:4–5, 12–14)
In this way, Jesus shared love and the presence of God with his disciples. Jesus came to serve in order to show God’s love for us.
The Japanese print “Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter” (1963) by Sadao Watanabe is one of my favorite works of art. Jesus sits in the traditional seiza position on his knees, wearing a robe and a sash like the kind you would wear in a Japanese bath house. Peter sits in front of him on a chair, eyes closed, hands together in a gesture of prayer. An angel holds out both hands in the act of blessing the event. Waves energetically bounce around the water basin. The gold background shows this is the kingdom of heaven—beautiful, sublime.
We can imitate the actions of Jesus almost like a performing art to show love to people, to show we care.
After a few trips to shelters to wash feet, relationships grew and so did the trust. “Thank you,” one woman said. “After you brought water the last time, I had my first restful sleep since getting here.”
“Thank you,” one man said. “I’m glad you came.” This was the same young man we met when we first arrived. But now, rather than angrily sending us away, he said he wanted us around. His attitude had completely changed.
In that gymnasium, the significance of Jesus’s actions became clear to me. The King of kings got down on his knees, “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus came not to be loved, but to love and to urge us to do the same.
“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15, 17)
May we be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus, serving as his hands and feet to a broken world so desperately in need of love.
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