Current Issue

"I’m afraid my feet might stink.”

“It’s so awkward to kneel in front of someone and touch his or her feet!”

Some women object that “it’s a hassle to take off my nylons.”

“I don’t want someone touching my feet!”

“Footwashing is a Bible tradition that doesn’t pertain to us because we have shoes to keep our feet clean.” These are just a few of the reasons why some Christians don’t want to be involved in a foot-washing service. But an engaging life-sized bronze sculpture called Jesus Among Us is changing some people’s attitudes in the small community where I live. This unique statue sits just across the street from our church, on the campus of Walla Walla University in eastern Washington.

Jesus among us

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was the only one there that evening, so I stopped to read the introductory plaque, which starts with a well-known Bible story:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. . . .

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ ” (John 13:3–5, 12–15, NRSV).*

What happens next is unexpected. As I walk up the steps toward the sculpture, I feel as if I’m on holy ground. “There’s something very sacred about this place,” I say to myself. As I sit down on the bench near the sculpture, the only sounds are those of a lonely cricket and water trickling from the sculpture’s water jar into the basin.

There in front of me is the figure of Jesus. With long hair and a beard, He looks the way many picture Him from Bible stories. Looking strong yet gentle, He’s wearing an inner robe, with a towel tied around His waist. In one hand, He holds a jar that has water pouring out of it into a basin below. The other hand is open, as if He’s inviting me to join the others He’s serving. In front of Jesus are three young people who represent the gender and ethnic diversity of our campus and, actually, of the world. They are modern-day disciples, dressed in modern-day clothes. And the King of the universe is kneeling in front of them, offering to wash their feet. He looks directly at the young man in the middle who already has one shoe off and is extending his foot toward the One who lives to serve. The other two figures watch and eagerly wait their turn.

Looking into Jesus’ face

I had the opportunity to speak to the sculptor, renowned artist Alan Collins. He asked me, “Have you stood behind the young man sitting in the middle and looked into Jesus’ face?”

“No, I haven’t,” I answered.

“Oh, you must do it!” he encouraged. “If you place your head behind his, then move to the side, it’s as if Jesus is looking at you!”

So I went back to the sculpture that evening. Although it had been a few months since I first walked up those steps, I sensed that same sacred feeling. I stood behind the middle figure, moved my head to the side, and looked into the face of Jesus. And I wondered, What would Jesus say to me if He was washing my feet? As I looked into His face, these are the words that came to my mind, You are forgiven. You need more than your feet washed. You are to follow My example.

These thoughts are actually what the ritual of footwashing is all about!

You are forgiven

Footwashing is a symbol of inner cleansing—the type of cleansing I need when I’ve messed up. Jesus has promised in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” After He forgives and cleanses, He’s promised this: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remember your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).

You need more than your feet washed

When it was the disciple Peter’s turn to have his feet washed, he protested to Jesus, “You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:8). But Jesus knew that Peter needed more than his feet washed—he needed his heart cleansed. So He said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (verse 8). To which, Peter replied, “Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (verse 9). I need more than my feet washed too. If I’m truly going to be a disciple of Christ, I need to be a reflection of Him. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

You are to follow My example

That night, when Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, wasn’t the only time He took on the role of a servant. His entire life was about servanthood. As He traveled from town to town, His thoughts never focused on His own wants or needs but always on those of others. He took the time to hold a child, to touch a man with leprosy, to forgive a woman caught in the act of adultery, to comfort two grieving sisters, and to raise a woman’s only son from the dead. Once, when He overheard the disciples arguing about who was the greatest, He said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Lesson from a child

Beside the Jesus Among Us sculpture are two benches where people can sit and contemplate. Once, while I was sitting there after church, I couldn’t help but notice a young girl, about six years old, studying the sculpture. She walked around to each of the three disciples, getting close to their faces, and looking directly into their eyes.

Then she walked over to look into Jesus’ eyes. Almost reverently, she took off one of her sandals and placed her foot under the water trickling from the pitcher in Jesus’ hand to the basin in front of His knees. Then she rested her foot in Jesus’ open hand. I was touched by how comfortable this little girl was with the sculpture portraying Jesus. She seemed to feel like the invitation for footwashing was extended to her personally. Apparently, the God she knew made her feel comfortable enough to rest her foot in His hand!

And I wondered, Are you and I comfortable with the God we know? Or have we spent too many days, weeks, months, or even years without talking to Him—till He seems like a stranger? Do our years of wrong choices cause us to feel uncomfortable in His presence?

The same Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” also said, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (Matthew 19:14; John 6:37).

He is warm and inviting, accepting and gentle, eager to have you feel comfortable enough to rest your foot in His hand. There you will find forgiveness, complete cleansing, and a longing to serve others.

* Scripture texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Your Foot in His Hand

by Nancy Canwell
From the January 2012 Signs