I was the sort of Sunday school teacher Cokesbury wrote curriculum for. I knew nothing about church, about the Bible, about Sunday school, about six and seven year olds. If the curriculum said to make cotton ball sheep, I made them, blissfully unaware how bored I’d become with this church school staple over the years. Back then I was twenty-four years old, wet behind the ears from Baptism and it was all new, possibly even Greek, to me.
I prepared for one particular Sunday in early April. I brought a bath towel from home, sliced a long sheet of butcher paper from the supply room, squeezed brown tempera paint into pie tins, filled a dish tub with cold water and prepared for the foot washing.
This is how it happened. The students, eight or so of them followed me to our classroom when we were dismissed from church. They put a sticker on the attendance chart. I played a song on my cassette player, we sang along. I handed out leaflets with a dot-to-dot of Jesus kneeling in front of a disciple, towel tucked in the rope belt around his tunic, pitcher in one hand, bare feet of the disciple peeking out from under his tunic. After the dots were connected and the picture colored, we opened our leaflets and I read the Bible story printed there. When the story was over I iterated the points from my teacher’s book––
Jesus washed his friends feet before they had dinner together because they were dirty from walking on the dusty roads to this house where they were going to eat their last dinner together. Washing someone’s feet was the job of servants, but Jesus loved his friends so he washed their feet that night.
Then we walked outside, and I unfurled the butcher paper along the cement. At one end of the paper I placed two pie tins brim full of brown paint. At the other end I set the tub of water. The children whose Saturday dirt had been soaked off in baths before bed the previous night were pink and clean in their Sunday best, thus the brown paint.
What the curriculum writers hadn’t considered was the amount of undress required. The boys shoved their socks into their shoes and I cuffed their pants along their calves, but the girls wore flowered dresses and tights. The children were supposed to stand in the paint, walk across the butcher paper, and step into the tub of water. The girls and I knew they couldn’t possibly squish through the tempera in their tights, even if it was washable. The tights had to come off, and I sent them into the bathroom for this. Tights when you are six or seven come off in one way, a tightly rolled tire from waist to toes, a nightmare to unroll.
We were ready. The first brave child shivered in the paint, made gooey brown prints across the paper, and giggled when I swiped my fingers between her toes in the bucket. It was supposed to go this way, with the child whose feet had been washed, washing the feet of the next to ford the butcher paper expanse.
I don’t think the washing was supposed to be so zealous, water soaking pant cuffs, bare legs and sidewalk. I don’t think the children, fresh from patting dry with an increasingly damp towel, were supposed to zoom back in line and traverse the paper again and again. I don’t think the water was supposed to turn brown so that we were washing feet in mud. I don’t think they were supposed to cajole me (the only one suitably dressed in sandals easily removed) to stand in paint and walk the paper with two eager children kangarooing with me at a time as they held my hands.
I don’t think we were supposed to walk across the butcher paper until it disintegrated into dingy damp worms. And afterward, we were supposed to talk about our experience, about how it felt to be someone else’s servant, and how Jesus’ friends must have felt when he washed their feet.
But by then, we were leaping into the dirty bucket and stomping across the sidewalk leaving water footprints and watching them evaporate. When the bucket was empty from splashing, our legs were clammy and cold and paper worms and cement grit clung to our feet and the tights and socks and shoes were not going back on under any circumstances, so we sat along the edge of the sidewalk in a patch of sun, wiggling our numb toes so they’d warm up.
When the parents came after worship to retrieve their children and take them to the church hall for cookies, I felt sheepish handing them rolled tights and assorted footwear along with the leaflets. But the children were happy and when asked, answered that Sunday school was fun, fun, fun and the parents smiled at them and me.
Two or three years later, I experienced foot washing the way it’s supposed to be done at an evening service during Holy Week. There were folding chairs and towels and big stainless steel serving bowls and pitchers full of warm water. We went two by two to the stations, where self-consciously, knowing our feet were clean, but probably smelly from being trapped in shoes all day at work, we unlaced one shoe, slipped off one sock, and rested our naked foot at the bottom of the bowl. Our partner poured water over the top of our foot, swished water round it, lifted it out of the bowl and toweled it dry. Then we switched places. It was all so solemn, I was self-conscious, and it seemed ridiculous to me, since no one had walked to church barefoot or otherwise. How long had it been since any of us had been outdoors barefoot? I tried to think of something that would translate, a modern day equivalent…but what would it be? Washing each other’s windshields before we left the service?
The dark drama of the end of Jesus’ life haunts us even today. It was chaos, a descent into Hell, but out of the depths, joy and wonder emerged. I remember my foot washing with the first graders, how I had to let go of the prescribed curriculum and embrace the moment. Something else happened, something I couldn’t have planned, something better than the plan. That is how God works, surprising us, even in death, and that is the gift of foot washing I lift up this Holy Week.