I had to finish my Easter sermon, and divide up the parts for the Maundy Thursday service today. A busy day, so I thought I’d get my hospital visit done first thing. Elsie was the only person in the hospital. I drove across town and found her in her room about 9:00 am. She had her feet on a chair, her legs bare from the knee down. I’d heard she’d been hospitalized with an infection in her foot, but it turns out it was a blood clot. The first thing she told me was that it had never hurt, but it had been beet red for several days before she went to the doctor, who put her in the hospital immediately.
Elsie is past ninety. She grew up in northern Wisconsin, a first generation American. She spoke Czech until she entered grade school. Every now and then the Czech comes through, like when she told me her foot had been “bee tread.” Elsie’s daughter Renee was up from Madison, just making sure things were not more serious than Elsie let on.
I spotted her bare feet on the chair and said, “Elsie, this is your lucky day! It’s Maundy Thursday, the day we remember Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I’ll get a basin and wash your feet.” Actually, Renee was getting ready to put some lotion on her feet, so Elsie decided I could do that instead. “Pull that chair over,” she instructed.
“Girl, it’s Maundy Thursday! I’m gonna kneel!”
Renee found lotion, but not the kind the doctor left. I rubbed the lotion on Elsie’s affected foot first. There was a blue line indicating the extent of the swelling when she first saw the doctor and an “x” which confirmed that it was her left foot that had the clot. There was a dash, written with the same ink on her right foot. By the time I finished her left foot, Renee had found the other lotion for the right foot. I said, “Elsie, we’re doing an experiment. In a few hours you can tell Renee which lotion you prefer.” I was amazed that she was not the least bit ticklish. There was so much lotion, especially on her second foot, that I smeared it up all the way to her knee. Then I rolled up my sleeves and spread it on my arms up to the elbow.
When I was done I asked, “Well, Elsie, what did that feel like?”
“It felt like my pastor put lotion on my feet.”
“Elsie, I can’t preach that! Can’t you do better than that for me? I need something to say tonight!”
Later in the day, I realized that Elsie had said a lot in those ten words. Elsie told me that she could receive a gift of kindness. Elsie told me that she trusted me. Elsie has spent her life giving: to her family—she raised four kids; to her nation—she served as a Marine during WWII; to her community—she always takes part in the Memorial Day Procession from downtown to the cemetery; to her church—she has held nearly every office and assisted with every committee in the six decades she has been a member of her congregation. She has the wisdom and balance to know that living is give and take, helping and receiving help. She was not embarrassed one little bit when I knelt at her feet. She did not need to make a joke, nor protest that such an act was beneath her pastor. She knew it was not.
Jesus knelt at the feet of his disciples to wash their feet, to teach them what he called, “a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” At first, Peter did not get it. Peter said, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
On second thought, Peter wanted Jesus to scrub him from head-to-toe. I think of Peter as Jesus’ bipolar disciple.
Starting my day putting lotion on Elsie’s feet gave me a new insight into the new commandment. I had always thought that love cannot be commanded, and I still believe that. But I also see that loving service is not degrading. I love Elsie. It was a joy-filling thing for me to offer her some kindness. And her gracious, casual acceptance of my gift of love was her gift to me.
Maybe Jesus’ command was not so much that the disciples love one another, but that they sit still long enough to accept love. That they slow down enough to feel love, that they experience a loving touch from their teacher. Only then will they be able to share love, and thus fulfill this commandment.
Love cannot be imposed or commanded. It can only be offered and accepted. Or rejected.
Elsie accepted my love, and I can hardly think of a more loving thing one follower of Jesus can do for another.
Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.