Almost all of you have heard this poem at one time or another, or seen it printed on pretty pages in the inspirational section of the bookstore or Christian gift shop. I refer, of course, to the both famous and infamous, “Footprints in the Sand.”
I would hate to offend anyone who draws comfort from the image of being carried like a child across the rocky parts of life’s beach. But because I have at times a slightly inappropriate sense of humour, I find myself drawn to some of the various parodies that have necessarily sprung up around such a ubiquitous text. My favourite is a cartoon that was going around the internet a couple of years ago, in which God tells the beloved child, “This, where there is one set of footprints; this is where I carried you. And that long groove over there? That’s when I dragged you along for a bit.”
There is, in this scene between Jesus and his disciples, there is in the backdrop to the tender moments a battle going on. The devil is at work behind the scenes, plotting to disrupt Judas’ relationship with Jesus, to sow betrayal and heartbreak even in the middle of the most intimate and loving moments that Jesus shares with his friends. Entering into an intimate relationship with Jesus, with anyone; entering into an intimate relationship with God, is not simply a sunset stroll along the beach.
It bothers Peter immensely. It bothers him that Jesus would both lead him and serve him – how can that be? Can’t Jesus do one or the other and leave it at that? Peter tries to hold him at bay, first by refusing his ministrations, and then by focusing on the water instead of the man pouring it – wash my head and my hands, too! Jesus laughs at him a little bit for that one. No, Peter. It is not about the water. It is about me, taking your feet in my hands, with your eyes in mine. It is about crossing that line of comfort that keeps me at a safe distance, praiseworthy but a little out of touch. It is about knowing that I would do anything for you; that I will lay down my life for you.
It makes Peter quite uncomfortable. How about you?
The act of foot washing makes many of us uncomfortable precisely because it is so unusual for us to hand over our feet to one another. It is more usually the prerogative of a mother bathing her child, or a daughter bathing her elderly father, a nurse caring for one who depends upon him, or maybe the undertaker. We do not often wash the feet of strangers.
When Jesus told his disciples, told us, that what he had done for us we must do for one another, he was not talking just about the water. He was not talking just about a yearly uncomfortable moment. He was inviting us to get real with one another; to become real to one another; to be a family of believers, bound by love for him, caring for one another with the love he gave us.
It is not without danger, nor without trouble that we enter into these relationships. The devil is at work behind the scenes, plotting to disrupt relationships, to sow betrayal and heartbreak even in the midst of our most profound moments with Jesus. And Jesus will not summon the hosts of heaven to drive him away. He chooses a longer road, and a harder one, but he chooses it for us, so that we will not lose him in a cloud of fiery archangels, but can walk with him every step of the way, as far as the cross on the hill.
When they placed him in his mother’s arms, a newborn child, she counted his fingers and his toes, kissed each one. When they laid him in her arms again, she counted the holes in his hands, in his feet, and kissed each one.
By the time the tomb was opened, no doubt there was a mess of footprints around and about, and one set strangely marked and marred.
“It was there that I carried you,” said the Lord.