Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” – John 13:8
A couple of weeks back – on Palm Sunday, actually – I came walking into church with a big bowl full of water and a towel. “Okay, folks,” I announced to my youth group. “Today I’m going to wash your feet.” It seemed appropriate, at the beginning of Holy Week, to reenact one of its defining moments of love; to think about Jesus, the servant Lord, and how we, in our turn, can serve others. A nice neat meaningful little Sunday school lesson, wouldn’t you agree?
One problem, though: nobody wanted to get their feet washed.
I really should have seen that one coming, honestly. After all, doesn’t the Bible story turn out the same way? Peter doesn’t want Jesus down on his hands and knees, scrubbing away his grime. He doesn’t go into details about why, but clearly the idea is an uncomfortable one.
In the same way, my youth group friends were not down with the foot-washing thing. The moment I declared my intentions, I was confronted with panicked expressions. “Why didn’t you warn us about this?” they asked me. And although they repeatedly balked at the idea of me taking a towel to their feet, they offered to do mine instead.
I took a couple of important lessons from this. First of all, don’t spring ritual cleansings on people – not even during Holy Week. But in a more general sense, this story has become representative of the struggles of my year of service.
Every day I’ve shown up at my children’s center, eager for something to do. Anything, really, provided that it’s useful. It doesn’t have to be teaching English. I just want to help. Heck, I would scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush if that might be helpful.
But it wouldn’t. You see, our children’s center is a fully-functional place. It already has a wonderful staff and facilities for all its needs. It does not, repeat not, need me. That was an important illusion of mine that has been shattered. Don’t get me wrong – I never at any point leading up to my YAV year thought that I was going to be saving the world or changing things with a capital C. But I did think I would be a little more useful than this.
In fact, to date, I have done much less serving than being served. At first at the center, I was a dependent and a guest. People brought me drinks, washed my dishes, and just generally didn’t let me do anything, no matter how simple, for myself. That hospitality was hard to bear. I kept trying to say that I could handle myself – that I could even help out with things! But I got shot down pretty consistently. There were days when I thought I was going to go crazy sitting watching other people do all the work.
Slowly, bit by bit, things did start to change. They began to include me in other aspects of center life, and to let me help out with chores that weren’t dependant on being fluent in Korean. I was so absurdly grateful . . . If you had told me a year ago that one day I’d be overjoyed at being allowed to mop the floor, I would have recommended that you take yourself to the hospital and make sure you didn’t get your head hit. But these days, I feel like I’m starting to wise up a little. And in my work (or, sometimes, lack thereof) at the center, I recognize a more complicated process going on than my former idea of simple serving.
I may feel helpless and frustrated, even patronized, when I am not working, when others are doing things for me. And that’s exactly why I have to recognize that they must feel the same way. It’s not any better a solution for me to serve them one-sidedly. After all, how arrogant of me is it to assume that I am the only one who wants to be involved, working hard on something that is meaningful? I’ve come to realize that the concept that I am the only one who can serve, even if it is only unconsciously held, is one with unfortunate implications: it implies an offensive sort of superiority, and it’s the same fallacy that Jesus had to call Peter on: the most important lesson of serving is learning how to be served.