“You and I are going on a journey together, and neither one of us is coming back,” Michael said as I gazed back at him, utterly confused yet somewhat understanding at the same time.
Then he started to wash my feet.
I was bearing witness to the practice set forth by Jesus Christ when He washed the feet of His disciples and stated, “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Michael is a man that clearly had a personal encounter with Christ that cleansed him and called him to do the same for others. We first met when I was in the most desperate time of my life, just a day or two into sobriety and full of fear. Upon sharing a little bit of my situation, he looked me in the eyes and said, “I know exactly what you’re going through. You don’t ever have to drink again.”
That didn’t seem possible, yet it offered me hope for the first time in quite a while. The path I was previously on left me bruised and full of dirt, yearning for a cleanse. As the days followed and we began a journey together, Michael and I spent morning after morning sitting in coffee shops while diving deep into the principles of recovery, discussions of God, and peeling away the layers of old attitudes and behaviors.
“How could this man have so much concern (and time) for my well-being?” I often wondered. He was willing to accompany me to the darkest places of my heart, the place that I didn’t let anyone else see. Any attempt at an explanation from him came in some variation of, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
This was my first experience with the helping hand of recovery. Michael was not the only one to wash my feet. Others were happy to offer help at a moment’s notice, perhaps getting into some specialty cleaning. Collectively, they showed me servant leadership and what it means to have an eye for those who suffer.
It was uncomfortable. It was necessary, but it was uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like justice. Coming off a long streak of self-destructive and self-centered behavior, I was not expecting people that I just met to serve me in such a way. My pride and shame did all it could to get in the way of help, but these people never ceased to offer.
During the last supper, Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet and is met with resistance (to put it lightly). “You will never wash my feet,” Peter boldly rebukes.
How often do we have Peter’s certainty of what will or will not work for us?
Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
(It should be pointed out that Peter’s response here has addict written all over it—if one is good, then more is always better!)
What are some of the barriers we put between ourselves and the loving hand of Christ and others?
Much like Jesus, Michael didn’t just tell me what to do. He accompanied me. Often he would passionately offer reminders, “It can’t be caught, it can’t be taught, and by the grace of God, it can’t be bought. It has to be learned. The only way for it to be learned is for one alcoholic to walk side-by-side with another.”
The model put forward by Jesus is at the essence of recovery. What I have learned since those early months of sobriety is that when one’s feet are washed, two are being served. One recovering addict helping another not only helps the newcomer get sober, but it is critical in order for the one offering the hand (or soapy towel) to remain sober. This is described in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and holds spiritual truths for all of us, both in recovery and those seeking salvation. “If an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die. Then faith would be dead indeed.”[i]
I am a changed man since Michael washed my feet. What a great gift that is, indeed! However, as he and others have made clear to me, it is only a gift that I get to keep if I am willing to give it away. What Michael was doing, I did not understand then, but am starting to understand now. In order for him to continue to grow spiritually, he needed me just as much as I needed him.
*Scripture references taken from John 13:1-15
[i] Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered, the so-called “AA Big Book,” 58. (AA World Services, Inc., New York, NY, 1939).