God who flows like water

                                       ©Suzanne Grimmett

Maundy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14

Psalm 116.1-2, 11-18

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13.1-17, 31b-35

Have you ever felt like you have caught a glimpse of God?

Perhaps it was when you watched a perfect sunset over the ocean, or saw rays of light bursting through clouds after a storm…or maybe it was when you looked closely at the forest floor and saw an intricate wonder of interconnected, complex life.

As a child, if you were blessed with reasonably adequate parents, you will have experienced that sense of divine presence through your parents. It has been said that a mother turning on the light in the bedroom of a crying child and saying, “Everything’s all right” is telling an important truth.  It is a truth that stands against so many other experiences in life which compete with one another to communicate that everything is all wrong, so it is difficult to believe.

But maybe you have glimpsed God later in moments in your own life? Moments when you have felt forgiven, beloved or when you sensed new life or freedom beginning.

Peter, the disciple whom we perhaps feel we know best, had been one to glimpse God in this man Jesus from Nazareth as he walked and worked with him, watching him teach and heal and bring new life and freedom with a word. Peter takes a centre position in this drama where Jesus shares a meal with his closest companions and then takes his outer robe off to kneel at the feet of his friends and wash their feet. But of course, Peter-like, his position in the spotlight is mainly earned by how far he gets it all wrong.

Peter is passionate and his position is held strongly. He has glimpsed God in his rabbi, Jesus, but God in Peter’s mind, should be a self-sufficient reality. God is a being to be worshipped from afar. As a Jewish man he may not have been burdened with the medieval Christendom images of a bearded man in the sky, but Peter clearly could not embrace the possibility of a God who, as John Shea puts it, “flows like water into the life of wearied people.”

“You will never wash my feet, Lord.”

But Jesus does not change to adjust himself to Peter’s need to have a God of self-sufficiency and all-powerful distance. Sometimes I think the church’s job is to allow disappointment in God to be felt and spoken – God, after all, will be who God will be, and that may not always match people’s projections and need for a big other to take responsibility for their lives.

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” says Jesus.

In this moment in John’s Gospel we are given a vision of God. It is a God who kneels at our feet, regardless of how vehemently we may wish to cry, “You will never, Lord!” We see a God who uses his power and revered position not to avoid what lesser people have to suffer, but rather to fully embrace it, taking on a solidarity with all human suffering and with those who are always last or cast aside. Jesus is not simply saying the first shall be last and the last first, he is utterly shattering the categories of first and last and replacing it with a vision of loving mutuality.

This glimpse of God in the upper room gives us also a greater understanding of how we are to live not only into a different social construct, but also how we are to live as people who have encountered the God “who flows like water into the life of wearied people.”[1] We often tell people that God loves them, but that can be conceptually meaningless to someone who knows no love.

Theologian James Mackay comments, “Unless the warmth of another human being envelop me, unless some other human person refresh the weariness of my defeated days, I simply will not feel my own life, my own self, as grace or gift of God, unless someone values me.”[2]

I think he is speaking something that we know to be true. When we tired, weary from our travels or sad at heart, being simply told that God loves us is likely not to change anything. We are physical beings and need, as is often said, ‘God with skin on’. Unless we feel that tenderness, and experience the actions of love, it is hard for us to change.

Instead of feeling first the love and grace of God and thus being enabled to extend that love to others, it seems rather that we need to first feel the grace of some human presence, feel forgiven, accepted, served, then begin to feel all life and existence as grace and so be able to share this with others. Jesus reveals God’s understanding and compassion for human experience by initiating the reign of God through witnessing again and again to loving service. Jesus shows us that a movement grows and a new kingdom created through enabling people to experience love, value and dignity. The reign of God is ushered by the Christ on his knees, wiping between grimy toes. God is glimpsed most clearly in acts of self-giving love that are careless of position and prestige and infinitely care-full of dignity and honour.

Tonight we will continue this slightly awkward tradition of washing feet. We don’t do it because we have taken Jesus’ instructions over-literally and feel we should or must participate in such a thing. We do this because as we kneel and wash the feet of another and allow our own feet to be washed, it gives us a glimpse of who God is and the loving mutuality of the relationships for which we are created.

As much as in the drama of burning bushes or angelic visitations or mountain transfigurations, in this scene in the upper room, where Jesus removes his outer robe and gets on his knees, we have a revelation of God.  This is a God not far away, but one who draws intimately close, flowing like water through the lives of you and me that human dignity may be affirmed, grace poured out and love given and received.

May we feel the tenderness of God, know the forgiveness of God, and experience the love of God in the revealing drama of these days.


[1] John Shea, Following Love into Mystery: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2010, 118.

[2] James Mackay, Jesus: The Man and the Myth: A Contemporary Christology. New York: Paulist Press, 1979, 170.