a sermon on using water to redefine relationships

Maundy Thursday 2018

March 29, 2018

by Deacon Student Luke Allgeyer

 

a few weeks ago

on ash wednesday

if you received ashes

you probably heard the same thing

that has been said

since god banished the first humans

from the garden of eden.

for those who didn’t get ashes

on ash wednesday

i’ll repeat those words for you now

just so that they’re in the air.

they’re important:

“remember you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

 

on ash wednesday this year,

with a black cross on my forehead

i went to the aquarium

in part because it was a day that illinois residents could get in free,

but more so because i needed to be around other, nonhuman living things.

creatures of dust like myself.

 

as i walked around

in the blue glow of the tanks

as light filtered through,

and i started thinking to myself:

yes, okay, i am dust, sure.

but am i not also water?

i have three facts about water

i want to share with you all today

 

FACT NUMBER ONE:

the earth’s surface is 71% water.

most of that is salt water,

ocean water.

about 97% of it.

 

the other 3% is fresh water.

and HALF of that is frozen in glaciers and ice caps.

all the freshwater lakes in the world,

lakes like our own lake michigan

make up only 7 one-thousandths of a percent.

and lake michigan is only part of that.

 

there is also what’s called

“biological water”

which is water that is within you.

and me.

and all the fish at the aquarium

and every other living thing from the biggest blue whales

to the smallest plankton that they munch on.

we all contain within us

“biological water.”

all the water within every living thing you’ve ever encounter in your life.

and it only amounts

to 0.0001%

of all the water in the world.

of which you

are only part.

 

all of this is to say

we have been given a lot of water.

FACT NUMBER TWO:

the human body is about 50-60% water.

which makes us a little less watery than the planet,

but makes it seem

at least to me

that we

like the planet we live on

are more water

than we are dust.

 

FACT NUMBER THREE:

the human person can survive for only a few days without water.

it is essential to our being,

to our thriving.

water is necessary

for all life on earth.

even desert plants

which don’t experience a rainstorm

for years on end

must either store up water within themselves

or lay dormant in a state that looks a lot like death

until the rain finally comes.

even more than food

—the stuff of the earth,

the other stuff of dust—

we require water

in order to prevent ourselves

from returning to dust.

as important as water is

for our planet

and for ourselves,

it is just as important

in the pages of the bible.

because water

in the bible

is what signifies relationship.

 

it is in the waters of the jordan river

that we see for the first time

God appearing together as three persons:

the voice of God from heaven, creator of all there is, declaring;

Jesus the Messiah, God with us humans, who is then anointed by;

the Holy Spirit, taking the form of a dove.

 

it is at the well

that Jesus meets the Samaritan woman

and affirms the potential of relationship

where most assume that it is impossible.

 

today we recognize

the very first communion

(which, by the way, literally means common participation,

being with others,

relationship)

and we do so with wine,

which, as his first miracle

Jesus once created from water.

and this was at a wedding of all places

so, i mean, talk about a relationship, right?

 

later we will learn

that water flows alongside blood

as it pours forth from christ’s wound

in the moment of his death

—that is,

in the moment that God’s relationship with humanity

is redeemed.

but now

in today’s gospel

we encounter a Jesus

who uses water to redefine what relationships might be.

 

in this reading from the gospel of john

jesus,

without warning

begins to wash his disciples’ feet,

and eventually makes it to peter.

now, in true peter fashion,

peter protests this action.

“lord,” he says to jesus,

“you shouldn’t be washing my feet.

this should be the other way around.

it is i that should be washing your feet.”

 

but jesus tells him otherwise.

in a cryptic way,

jesus informs peter that

there can be no relationship between the two of them

unless peter allows his lord

to wash his feet.

 

john tells us that jesus recognizes this power within himself

—that is, the power to invert and redefine

what it means to be in relationship—

because it has been given to him by god.

god has “given all things into his hands,”

and because of this,

jesus has the freedom

“to love his own who were in the world,”

and “love them to the end.”

 

and what an act of love we witness.

precisely because it is not appropriate for a teacher

to wash the feet of his students,

jesus’ act of stooping low

—to the part of the body that is closest to dirt

to filth

to hell—

this act alone

reconfigures what it means

to love

and to be loved.

 

if the roles were reversed,

if it was peter washing the feet of jesus,

that is, a student washing the feet of a teacher,

the sentiment of love would be different.

that is an act that is expected,

that in other circumstances,

we might say the teacher

“deserved”

to have his feet washed.

this kind of action, though,

doesn’t necessarily show love as jesus loves—

that kind of action,

of following the status quo,

shows conditioning.

it betrays presumptions.

it depends on an economy

or who “deserves” what.

 

but jesus,

as he explains after washing peter’s feet,

does so not out of conditioning,

not out of expectation,

and not because peter deserved it,

but instead out of the opposite

of all those things:

love.

a love that is unconditional,

unexpected,

undeserved.

by washing the feet of his disciples

jesus is showing them

and us

that love

—god’s love—

doesn’t need to be based

on how obedient you are,

how great a servant or student you are,

whether you say the right things,

whether your feet are clean,

whether you have power

or authority

and command love and respect

—as jesus could have,

as god could also.

 

no,

jesus inverts this

and shows us that love

his love

god’s love

has no requirements,

it doesn’t recognize relationships

as hierarchies of power.

it doesn’t define relationships

through an economy of give and take.

it doesn’t require relationships

to be clean or spotless

in order to be filled with love,

 

because it is precisely this kind of love

that washes us clean to begin with.

it is this unconditional love that cleanses us

of the stains that pop up

when we try to prove ourselves worthy

of being loved.

this love of god

—a love that can wipe clean our relationships,

clean from fear, from embarrassment, from shame—

this love sets us free

to love all those around us,

to trust in the example that jesus set,

to love one another

as god loves us

—with a love that is unconditional

vulnerable

and displays that love

for all to see.

this example that jesus has set

becomes further proof

that by showing radical love,

love that inverts the status quo

we can truly show the love of god.

for “servants are not greater than their master,”

jesus reminds the disciples,

which makes it sound like he is trying

to remind them of their place in the world.

but then:

“if you know these things,”

things that the world would have us know,

that servants are not greater than their masters,

 

or,

that the voices of teenagers

are not strong enough

to change policy in america;

or,

that undocumented immigrants

do not deserve to have the same human rights

as the people who employ them;

or,

that those who live

on the south side of our own city

should live in expectation of being shot,

while elsewhere in the city

people can walk without fear;

or,

that certain black families do not deserve greatness

like the law enforcement officers

who unjustly kill their loved ones on the street;

officers who,

in another time in this nation’s history,

could have been considered

the masters of those families.

“servants are not greater than their masters”

jesus says.

and if we,

those who follow his example,

know these things,

we are blessed,

we are blessed—

when

in the knowledge that we are transforming what it means to love

we kneel to the ground

to those who society considers

its dirt and grime

where they are forced to live

by those who have the power to be their masters,

and we wash them clean

with the waters of our love.

 

god has already chosen to love us,

and shows us that love

as jesus washing peter’s feet.

and because god chooses to love us,

unconditionally,

god gives us a new commandment

that we can choose to follow:

love.

love in a way that is unexpected,

that defies the status quo,

that has people saying to you,

“you will never love me that way,

i don’t believe you,

to love me that way is beneath you,

you would never give up the things

you need to give up

in order to love me in such a way.”

do it.

love in a way that opens you up

to the love of others,

that by washing their feet,

you are also able

to allow them to wash yours.

forming a relationship

built on love,

not on exchange or commodity who deserves what.

love in a way that cleanses

all those who struggle in the face

of a world that would rather have them remain

covered in dust and dirt.

love in a way

that has the power

to transform relationships,

to transform the world.

 

 

 

 

 

we have been given so much water—

whether it is salty, fresh, biological,

it is around us,

it is within us,

jesus has shown us

simply by washing the feet of his disciples

that we have been freed to love.

and we have been freed not only to give

but to accept love.

we have been freed to share the deepest parts of ourselves

with those who eat and drink beside us.

we have been freed to allow ourselves to be vulnerable—

to stoop and wash the feet of others without fear,

but also to let others wash our feet,

knowing what it means

to have such a powerful relationship.

 

we are free to center our relationships

on unconditional love

because we have already been washed clean

of the dirt and grime

that stains the love we so wish to show.

“just as i have loved you,” jesus says to us,

“so you should love one another.”

 

remember, yes,

that you are dust.

but as we wash each others’ feet tonight,

as we turn to face the horror of the cross,

as we sit the vigil before the mystery of easter,

remember that

even more than dust

you are water.

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