The Strange, Humbling Ritual of Foot Washing

Ryan Weseloh

Published 20 April 2022

As I reflect on my years participating in the L’Arche community I am taken aback by the vulnerability we share in living life together at L’Arche. There is something unmistakably human about abiding under the same roof, sharing the same dinner table, and praying together. This humility and mutual vulnerability becomes explicitly tangible in L’Arche Chicago’s practice of foot washing on Maundy Thursday.

Last Thursday, we packed into the small Angel House living room in a circle with basins, towels, and pitchers of warm water. Keli began, slowly reading the story of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet: a familiar story to many, and new to others. Then she knelt down on the floor, and commenced washing Elbert’s hands by pouring water over his hands over the bowl. Some people are not comfortable with having their feet washed; and can choose to have their hands washed if they prefer. Keli then took a clean towel to slowly dry Elbert’s wet hands, and humbly received a blessing and prayer from Elbert. She then passed the bowl and water pitcher to Elbert to wash Anders feet. Anders raised his legs up, so that Elbert could wash and dry them without having to get on the floor. Afterwards, Anders put his hand on Elbert’s shoulder and prayed for him.

Christianne was seated next to Anders and chose to get her hands washed as well. She had eaten cheese puffs for a snack before the foot washing and joined the circle before she had the opportunity to wash off all the cheese dust from her hands. Keli held the bowl for Anders to pour the water over Christianne’s hands and all the cheese dust was washed away into the bowl. Seeing Christianne reminded me of how we are all encouraged to come into community just as we are. I reflected on how even though we are just using water to “wash” each other, our dirtiness was washed away, whether it is dirt, sweat, or cheese dust.

When John had water poured over his feet, he nodded his head in approval and  said “ahh, that feels good”. I thought of John’s gift of receiving acts of service,  accepting them with grace and modeling humility. As assistants and caregivers, we may hold ourselves back from being tended to by core members; it can look different and we may not realize the core members are caring for us in their unique way. But at the end of the circle, each person had an opportunity to wash their neighbors feet, to receive a blessing, and to have their own feet washed. Each person gave, each person received.

To some people it is a simple, ordinary gesture that Jesus washed his disciple’s feet and to others it is something very jarring and challenging to participate in. There is something in this tradition that is profoundly meaningful and holds a deep significance in L’Arche; we consider the foot washing to be an important example of mutuality rooted  in our shared dignity, an act of service that Jesus modeled for us:

14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

John 13:14-17

In our abilities and disabilities, no core member is greater than an assistant, just as no assistant is better than a core member. No human is better than any other human. Jesus’s choice to wash his disciple’s feet models for us humble service towards others. This is what we are called to do in our L’Arche journey; and we all learn sooner or later that we all have difficulties, some are just more visible than others. When we wash each other’s feet at Angel House, we go beyond our identities of assistant and core member. In that moment, we were united in our humanity and need before God in a simple life together.