Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Breamore, 2nd Sunday in Lent
Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Breamore at the Morning Service for the second Sunday in Lent on the theme of ‘The basin and the towel’- 12th March 2017.
“Jesus…got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water in a basin and began to was the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” (St. John 13: 3-5).
I remember as a very young child when I was sick needing to wash in my bedroom. I remember the jug and ewer-a wonderful Victorian piece with bright blue lines on the edges of the jug and around the rim of the basin. I cannot say I remember the colour of the towel! I guess these are items of a past world having replaced with our stainless steel sinks and designer wash basins. I can’t say washing was a favourite pastime of mine as a small lad and one on which my mother commented frequently! But I do remember my mother taking great care in washing me when unwell, with a soft muslin flannel.
Washing another person is an extremely personal activity. It is a sign very often of a special intimacy. Those of you who have been hospitalised in the past may have experienced a blanket bath at the caring hands of a nurse. Now on day one they stand behind you as you stutter to the bathroom so that you can was yourself-how times change!
This morning’s reading from St. John is the familiar reading of the washing of the disciples’ feet from the events of Maundy Thursday evening the night of the betrayal of Jesus and the evening in which he ate his Last Supper with his friends. During the meal he leaves the table, takes off his outer robe and invites each of his disciples to have their feet washed. We may think this strange. But in his day and culture this might be expected from the slave of the house-washing the grime off their feet. It was a very menial task and one in which he deliberately chose to accept.
He takes on the mantle of a slave, the lowest role in their culture. A bowl and a towel’ this is today’s Lent theme. Returning to the story I am struck by the intimacy of this action by Jesus.
But what is its significance at this time in the Passion Story? I am sure you have heard lots of sermons about the challenge of being a servant church and our participation in that. However, this morning I want to direct our gaze to the intimacy of his actions.
Intimacy can be a scary subject to talk about because it takes us to the very heart of ourselves and our innate vulnerability. The philosopher, Martin Buber talks of intimacy as an ‘I-Thou’ moment rather than an ‘I-It’ moment. In our modern English language we have lost the sense of intimacy which ‘Thou’ or in French ‘Tu’ signifies. A relationship demands at least two people. I am sure all of us can identify moments of intimacy with others. They are often moments in which we truly feel we have been recognised, acknowledged, heard, seen-they have a certain ring of truth about them. They are precious and special. It is like a process of ‘mirroring’-they are moments of mutual receptivity each gazing on the other. Two or more people see each other as distinct human beings and are not absorbed by each other. This happens when we are in love, in a deep friendship, an unsolicited act of kindness by another, or indeed being moved by a beautiful sight in the countryside or by music or a painting – all moments of encountering something or someone beyond the here and the now of seeing- moments of mystery.
I was speaking earlier of that feeling of intimacy I received at my mother’s hand. I know I am fortunate because I know so many people who have had such opposite experiences with parents. To receive that love we have to be open to receive it, and that sometimes happens more when we feel unwell or ill and our guard is down. I felt this very recently t the hands of some wonderfully tender nurses in the Intensive Care Unit after my recent heart operation.
This loving action of Jesus as he pours water into a basin, washes the disciples feet and dries them with a towel is a pattern for our intimacy with others. If we are to serve others as a Church and as individuals we need to be willing to open ourselves to others in our serving. Say I write a cheque for Amnesty International, or Christian Aid- how can that be intimate? I suggest it can become intimate when we allow ourselves to feel what the recipients of our money might be feeling. Bonhoeffer called this a willingness ‘to participate in the suffering of God in the world’. Or it may be that a friend or indeed stranger wants to share something of their anxiety or illness with you. Can you allow yourself to listen in a non-defensive way, as another vulnerable human being with compassion? Allowing yourself to get close to another can mean more to the other than your words. I am not suggesting this is easy or that you will not feel uncomfortable. All of you will have experienced this from time to time. Being an intimate compassionate human servant of others simply requires an open and willing heart. This is often called a process of transformation. This is the path to human growth. It is also the path to encountering the presence of God.
Jesus pours water into a basin, washes the disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel-an intimate totally self-giving and loving act. As Richard Rhor writes, ‘Jesus reveals that the give-and-take of human and Divine is utterly possible precisely because he became human and personal.’ He goes onto say, ‘If any friendship does not somehow empower you, it is not true relationship or truly personal’.
A basin and a towel-these are but symbols of a pattern of living we are invited to emulate in our reaching out to friend and strangers alike. They are symbols of a pattern of living which promise an encounter with Divine Love who is both present among us, and between us, and beyond us.
John Towler, Assistant Priest.