We, as a culture, don't practice foot washing, not as first century Palestinians did. We don't travel by foot, wearing sandals. We do not enter another's home with dusty feet. We do not greet our dusty-footed guests with a water basin and towel.
So this practice comes down to us only as a ritual, disconnected to its cultural moorings. Is a ritual so disconnected still meaningful? I've been a part of discussions that have wondered what a 21st Century sign of welcome might be, that we might substitute for a Maundy Thursday ritual. We always come up empty. I don't know if that means we no longer practice hospitality or if our hospitality rituals are simply not so obvious. They're certainly not so intimate.
People have issues with feet. Feet are disgusting. Or a fetish. Or ticklish. I suppose for Jesus and his contemporaries, feet weren't hidden so much, and probably didn't stink so much. They simply got dirty. They were just a part of the body that was seen all the time. They were probably more calloused than ours. And I imagine there were some disgusting, fetishized, and ticklish feet in Jesus' time, too.
But still, it was good manners to greet a traveler with water basin and towel.
Some churches practice foot washing this day. Most do so with some hesitancy, some sensitivity to others' feelings about feet. There is an enormous opt out clause, in neon letters.
I'm going to go out on a limb. In our American society, the ritual of washing feet isn't about having the humility to serve another by washing his/her feet, although that's still there. I propose the model for us isn't Jesus in the gospel story. It's Peter.
Whether Peter was ashamed or too proud, I suppose we can open that up to discussion. Shame, pride, I believe them to be two sides of the same coin. Either way, Peter doesn't want to let Jesus wash his feet. Peter isn't good enough to have his feet washed by his teacher. While we would do well to pay attention to Jesus's humility in bending to wash his student's feet, we should more, nowadays, pay attention to Peter's ability to set aside his pride (or shame) and let Jesus serve him, touch his feet, have that physical intimacy once practiced between a guest and the host.
Is this ritual, separated from its cultural practice, still meaningful?
Speaking only for myself, I'll answer sideways: I seldom have wine or bread with a meal anymore, but the most meaningful meal of my week consists of only wine and bread.