Greetings everyone, such a blessing to be with you today. If you don’t know me, my name’s Abel and I’m a pastoral intern here at Reservoir.
Today, I want to talk about a passage that we’re going to be reflecting on this week with the Lent guide- from the
Gospel of John, Chapter 13:
And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
A question that comes to me when I read this passage is, why is Peter uncomfortable with Jesus washing his feet? What is it about Jesus, about Peter, about the situation that makes Peter think it would be wrong for Jesus to wash his feet?
I mean, the answer to that question is obvious – Peter thinks it’s demeaning. Jesus is his Lord, deserving of the highest honor imaginable, even of honors he can’t imagine. And washing someone’s feet, serving them like that, is the opposite of honor, to be brought low.
It’s so obvious that it remains unstated subtext in the sermon most commonly – at least in my experience – given on this subject…Jesus chooses to demean himself to serve, so we should choose to serve as well. We should humble ourselves as Jesus humbled himself, even to death on a cross.
That’s not a bad sermon. I agree with it. We should serve, we should empty ourselves for the sake of others.
Yes – and if you’ll notice – that isn’t the answer Jesus gives Peter to his question. He doesn’t say,
‘I wash your feet to set the example for service in the Kingdom of God’
‘this act is a microcosm of my work on earth.’
“Unless I wash you, you will have no share with me.”
Certainly, this ‘share’ can mean ‘unless you allow me to serve, we cannot all be servants together.’
But sharing goes both ways. If Peter and Jesus share in the serving – then they also share in the being served.
Let me ask you a question: When you think about service as a good act in which you take part – where are you? Are the one serving or are you being served?
If you’re anything like me, you’re serving.
Why is that?
Well, one answer we could give is that being served is something that is reserved for people who are in positions of honor – or who demand honor, whether they deserve it or not. Following Jesus, whether we deserve honor or not, we should divest ourselves of the benefits of such a position and never seek it out for ourselves.
But the truth is, those aren’t the only people who receive service – and, far more often, when we’re talking about charity, we aren’t talking about those kinds of people. We’re talking about people who need the service, who can’t fill a need by themselves.
Why don’t we imagine ourselves in their shoes?
Stanley Hauerwas, a favorite theologian of mine, gave a talk in the 80’s about suffering and lessons from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These lessons that he talks about have to do with the way we think about suffering, particularly the suffering of others.
With how we consider living with some types of suffering so unthinkable, so dehumanizing, that a life worth living is impossible to imagine alongside it.
Here’s a question: Why do we suffer? I don’t mean ultimately, like what’s the purpose. I mean causally – why do we suffer?
Hauerwas’ answer is that we suffer when our needs aren’t met. Whether that’s needs for food or emotional care, whether our needs aren’t met because of natural disasters or cruelty, structures or individuals, it’s the lack of something we need that causes suffering.
“We suffer because we are incomplete beings who depend on one another for our existence.”
And that’s the heart of it – we need each other. We can’t meet all our needs alone.
But we sure as hell want to.
Hauerwas talks about how this is so tied up in our self-image. That if I can draw a line around what I do alone, what I have, what I achieve – then I can establish who I am. Self-sufficiency is about identity – it’s what teenagers push for as they establish themselves, it’s how we know that we’re our own selves and not copies of others, it’s what lets us feel like the masters of our own destinies.
It’s also a lie. That’s a lesson that disability can teach us – or, at least, the one it taught me. It’s easy to pretend that you are self-sufficient when you are able to meet most of your own needs, when you can push the others down or deal with them on your terms. It’s when you can’t help but need, need openly and all the time, that you realize how much it’s all a charade.
There are days I struggle to even choose to eat, and probably just wouldn’t if there wasn’t someone to help me, either by making me food or simply helping me choose food to eat and making sure I actually eat it.
There are times when I desperately need someone to talk me out of my own head and talk me down from intense panic and self-hatred and self-destructive patterns of thinking – oftentimes over issues I’ve wrestled with, with the same people, before, time and again. I am good at many things, extend help to other people in many ways, but my mind keeps coming in and forcing me to reckon with the fact that I am not truly self-sufficient.
Breaking down that lie, it’s painful. The truth isn’t something we like to be reminded of.
We don’t want to lose our sense of self, so we don’t admit to our need. We let our neediness isolate us in our fear.
When, then, we are confronted with the neediness of others – well, it’s uncomfortable, to say the least. Particularly when their needs are so obvious, so pervasive.
But at least we’re not like them, right? At least we’re the ones who meet needs – not the ones who need. We can be secure in our identity if we’re not the needy – if we’re the servers, not the served.
Except that’s not service, is it? It’s certainly not “having a share with” others – it’s not existing on equal terms, it’s not entering into relationship. It’s hierarchy. As much as we may like to think we are divesting ourselves, if we are doing it to shore up our own identities by assuring ourselves that we are not like the persons we’re serving – well, that’s just power over.
So, what does service look like? What is Jesus offering to Peter when he refers to a “share of me?”
Maybe a better question is, does our neediness have to make us lonely?
Because, we all need, don’t we? What would the world look like if, instead of judging people based on how close they were to a self-sufficient ‘normal,’ we got rid of that whole notion all together? What if ‘normal’ were needing, in all the myriad different ways it’s possible to need?
Deborah Creamer, a disability theologian, calls this a ‘limits model’ of disability. A model that says limitation is a universal experience. Which is certainly not to say that everyone is disabled. No two limitations are the same, between two disabilities or even within one person’s experience of the same disabilities on different days – but that people with disabilities are unique in the way all of us are, because we all share the state of being uniquely limited.
And if we all share the state of being limited, but if all of our limitations are different – then we’re each allowed to have our own relationships to our limitations. To suffering.
You see, just because we’re all limited doesn’t mean all limitations are good. Just because we all suffer, because suffering is the inevitable result of neediness, doesn’t mean we should just accept suffering.
“Our refusal [both] to accept certain kinds of suffering, or to try to interpret them as serving some human purpose, is essential for our moral health.”
Living the life that you have while being upset about what you don’t have, accepting and not accepting, struggling sometimes in anger and sometimes as inspiration – that is just real life for people with disabilities (it is for everyone, but it’s too easy to deny it if you’re not forced into it).
This is why people push back against the term ‘differently-abled’ – while, yes, we are all limited and our limitations don’t make us less valuable as people, we don’t have to love all our limitations – we don’t have to think of them as just neutral differences. We can recognize that there are infinite, equally valid forms of embodiment and that there are unique difficulties that come from certain forms of embodiment.
We should fight against suffering that is a result of injustice and we should also strive as much as we can towards more and more flourishing, whatever that looks like for us in whatever body we have, even while that body hurts. There’s a tension here, a both-and: we accept that suffering is a part of life and we still work against it.
The point in recognizing that we all have limits isn’t to affirm that all limits are good, that we must be happy about every part of our embodied realities. Rather, it’s about embracing the fact that the things we aren’t happy about are a part of our lives – embracing, not loving, but running away either.
There’s a quote from The Disabled God that I really love:
“Her difficult life need not be denied or described. It need only be lived.”
So, how do we live it?
By having a share with each other.
What does this look like? I’m not sure – because every need is different. While I might not have an answer, I also think that’s kind of the point.
Trying to be better, do better, isn’t about getting to a place of perfection where there’s no more suffering. I think that the very idea that we could get to a place where we didn’t have to deal with the messy negotiations of living with other people is just an attempt to escape our limitations, to escape our own need for correction and improvement.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic is by Leo Tolstoy:
“The good is only in the motion toward perfection; but the stopping at any stage whatsoever is only a cessation of the good.”
Having a share with others isn’t about being perfect but about continually being better. In light of that, all we can do when faced with the great plurality of needs of our fellow humans is our best, and then our better after that.
We don’t owe others help because they need it. People always need things, and it is physically impossible for anyone to meet every need of every person they come across. We owe aid because we share the state of needing it. Not that we might, someday need help; no, it’s the fact that needing is constitutive of the human condition.
Just like we can’t meet everyone else’s needs, so we can’t meet all our own needs. We can only survive if we strive together – if we have a share with each other. We help, not because other people’s weakness compels us; we help because our weakness unites us to everyone else on the basis of shared need, and that unity compels us. We help because we’re human. And insofar as we have strength, we accept it as just as temporary as our weakness, and use it to do what we always already owed everyone else.