Exhaustion, Eagerness, and Enoughness
A sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Shawn Pang on Unsplash.]
There is a viral tiktok floating around of a baby’s reaction to trying ice cream for the first time. Maybe some of you have seen it:
Just at the start the baby does not seem so sure about what is going on, but then – after the first taste – her eyes get wide and she lunges forward, sinking her fingers into the gooey goodness and smashing the scoop of ice cream into her face as she enthusiastically devours it. The adults around her are laughing hysterically, but baby doesn’t care. She knows this is good and she wants more.
It’s perhaps an irreverent illustration, but I can’t help but draw the connection between the baby’s single-minded pursuit of her frozen treat and Peter’s eagerness for Jesus’ washing in today’s gospel.
Once he understands that this is something good, something that underscores his closeness with Jesus, he makes a lunge for it. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
You see the similarity, right? The single-minded focus. The total disregard for social expectations. The unbridled eagerness.
I have always loved this little moment in John’s account of the last supper. Before the heaviness of betrayal and, desertion, and denial, there is this sweet, bumbling moment where Peter reaches for more of Jesus, like a toddler reaching for more ice cream.
I have to admit, though, that this year Peter’s moment of eagerness hit me differently.
This year it was a little less heart-warming, and a little more… unsettling. Because, this year, I cannot imagine summoning up Peter’s level of unabashed enthusiasm.
I’m too drained. Maybe a little too jaded. I’m too overwhelmed by all of… everything. The umpteenth pandemic risk assessment, and worry for friends hit hard by escalating food and gas prices, and legislative attacks across the country on trans kids and their families, and war crimes against civilians in Ukraine…
I am not suffering any of these evils in ways that directly harm me, but I’m still aware of the way they have affected me with a constant, under-lying buzz of anxiety. And I know I’m not alone.
I came across a story on NPR recently about how large numbers of people are developing “trauma-like symptoms” as a result of the pandemic. It’s a strange kind of trauma, because we are used to associating trauma with sudden violence or threat, but the slow-moving, amorphous nature of this extended season of heightened fear and perceived helplessness is part of the problem. It has a wearing effect, like water over rock. More and more people are experiencing low-grade, but daily, symptoms like increased irritability, fatigue, trouble sleeping, substance abuse, and loss of joy. There is a collective sense of “feeling like we are just holding on.”
I am lucky enough to have a solid support system, including qualified mental health professionals and medication, but that just makes me all the more aware of how incomprehensible is sounds to be able to muster the effusive level of enthusiasm that Peter expresses in this scene. Honestly, if I can picture myself in that upper room at all, I see myself numbly assenting to the foot washing without really engaging the idea of how profound Jesus’s action was. It would be just a chance to take a deep breath.
I hesitated to admit this to you all in my sermon tonight. I don’t want you to worry about me, and I definitely don’t want you to feel like you have to take care of me.
This sermon is not about me. It’s about the reality that we, as a society, have been deeply, traumatically affected by the last two-plus years. By the pandemic, but also by so many other sources of anxiety and strain. This is our first Holy Week together (mostly) in the same space in 3 years! I got to kneel and wash your feet tonight. We get to sing together, and share communion together… but we aren’t back to normal, because we have all been impacted by the strain and dislocation of these years.
And I need to name this, because I suspect that I am not the only one who might feel a twinge of shame, a sense of failure at my inability to summon as much enthusiasm as Peter did when Jesus washed his feet.
And I need to name it because I think Jesus’ response to Peter speaks just as clearly to exhaustion and trauma-response as it does to over-enthusiasm.
Jesus speaks to us as much as he does to Peter: “You don’t need more. You don’t need to dive head-first. You are already clean.”
To Peter, this assurance pulls him back from excess. Jesus is telling Peter that the love he is modeling is not about extravagant gestures and insatiability. Jesus has given him what he needs.
For those experiencing the drain of societal trauma, this same assurance soothes us with the teaching that the love he is demonstrating is not about striving. Jesus is telling us that our belovedness is not proportional to our energy level. Jesus has given us what we need.
More specifically, Jesus is saying that we have already been cleansed. I’m pretty sure this DOESN’T mean regular bathing is unnecessary. (We are far past that stage of the pandemic). Clearly, from the allusion he makes to Judas, Jesus is talking about spiritual cleansing.
So, what is it that Jesus has washed away for us? What is it that requires neither our exuberance nor our striving, because Jesus has already made us clean?
John Scholar Karoline Lewis suggests in her commentary that what Jesus has washed away is “that which would prevent full recognition of who Jesus is and what is about to happen.” She draws this conclusion because the same word for washing that is used in tonight’s reading is also used in John chapter 9, where Jesus cures the man who was born blind through washing his eyes. After this cleansing, the man is then able to see in two ways. His eyes are healed: he is able to see the physical world. But he also sees Jesus for who he really is, and he follows him. That’s what this act of cleansing is all about. It’s about seeing clearly.
It’s hardly surprising that when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he is doing more than scrubbing off the dirt of the road. Of course there’s more to it than that! He is offering them a sign-act, as he has done throughout his ministry. He is providing them with a tangible experience through which to understand his teaching.
And the teaching that he offers is about a new commandment, to “love each other just as I have loved you.”
A friend of mine recently asked the question “what makes this commandment new? The command to love was certainly not new.” My answer is that the newness comes from the way that Jesus demonstrates his love – not just through service, but specifically through a humble act of cleansing… through modeling a love that draws close in order to wash away artificial barriers.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, and us as well, that the love he calls us to embody is a love that washes away anything that prevents us from seeing him or each other clearly.
This can look like letting go of the kind of self-focused urgency that Peter expresses, which puts his own desire at the center of the interaction. That kind of eagerness can blind us to the sufficiency of what Jesus has already given us, and that can turn us away from really seeing the other person in front of us. When we see clearly the wholeness of God’s love for us, we can love each other more completely as well.
The cleansing love that Jesus models can also look like release from the burden of expectations about what we have to do to earn a place at the table. When the world overwhelms us, even the promise of Christ’s love can trigger our anxiety, because we feel like we have nothing to give in return. But when we see clearly the unconditional love that Jesus pours on us, we can be freed from the transactional model of relationships, where everything has a cost. And this frees us to love each other by showing up in all of our depleted vulnerability, without holding back due to fear.
Jesus’s act of cleansing, and his commandment to love as he loves truly are new. They paint a radically new picture about what a loving community can look like.
Like letting go of the urgency to make sure we get all that we can.
Like receiving grace without worrying if we have earned it.
Like knowing that Jesus has already given us what we most need: love.
Thanks be to God.
 https://www.npr.org/2022/04/07/1087195915/covid-pandemic-trauma-mentalhealth  Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, (2014) kindle edition, pp. 179-180.