A Theology of Dishwashing

[These reflections, collected and written down by Geoff Wichert over a couple of years, were first presented to the Graduate Christian Fellowship on Nov 25, 2010. They can also be downloaded as a Word document.]


These stories and reflections are rooted in the re-creation of the Graduate Christian Fellowship 5 yrs ago (Sept 2006). At that time we wanted to reshape the community, a change that we named in several different ways: a shift from program to community, from a focus on worldview (which is often primarily intellectual) toward character formation (a more holistic approach).

We noted that the Wine Before Breakfast community was characterized by a high level of personal investment, a sense of belonging, and strong loyalty/faithfulness, often showing itself in the enthusiastic invitation of friends and newcomers. We suspected this has something to do with continuity and rhythm, the routines and habits of discipleship cultivated in the regular weekly liturgies

We also supposed it was connected to WBB’s emphasis on hospitality – the regular practice of eating together. Over the years we had tried having “soup & bread” before GCF a number of times, but it was always optional, and never particularly successful. So we decided to make it central to our gatherings, and essential to what we did. We also aimed to establish other practices that would give the community a deliberately distinctive character and “feel”, such as our own weekly worship time.

Out of all that came the model of GCF that we have today. It has certainly evolved over the years, but one feature that has remained constant (for obvious reasons) has been the practice of washing dishes. Because it happened early, and was closely tied to deliberate reflection on the shape of the ministry, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on it, and these are some of the thoughts that have emerged.

There are 3 stories about the practical side of washing dishes: both FYI, but also presented here under the notion of “logistics as pastoral practice.” There is a biblical analogy from Jesus’ teaching, and finally a reflection on liturgical practice.

Dishwashing Logistics as Pastoral Practice (I)

or Why we wash dishes in the Office

A Story of how it all started

To be honest, when we re-imagined how to shape the GCF community and include food in our gatherings, we gave no thought to how we would wash the dishes. So we simply kept doing what we had always done in the past: we carried everything down the hall and around several corners to the Day Students’ Lounge, where we washed and dried the dishes and then brought them back. Very quickly, however, we noticed how the lively buzz of conversation after our evening discussion would suddenly falter and go silent. The departure of a significant portion of the group to go do the dishes was scattering our community, and draining the energy from the room.

So we changed the way we do things, got some basins and dish soap, and not only brought the dishwashing back “in-house,” but placed it at the very centre of our community. Now washing dishes fosters interaction instead of interrupting it, and has become an integral part of the evening


Dishwashing Logistics as Pastoral Practice (II)

or Why we wash dishes in a circle

A Story of the time we didn’t, and the holy movement of furniture

One time all the tables had been pushed against the wall (an arrangement from a previous event), so without thinking about it too much we just lined up all our basins along the edge and had an “assembly line” kind of washing and drying process.

But then everyone was facing the wall. We weren’t looking at each other, and had limited ability to converse. It was awkward, unpleasant, and un-community-like.

As leaders we immediately decided never to do that again. Now we will deliberately rearrange furniture if necessary to make sure the table is in the centre of the room so we can all (those doing dishes and those who aren’t) stand around it and continue the conversation; that simple action has crucial pastoral significance.

Dishwashing Logistics as Pastoral Practice (III)

or Why we pre-rinse

A Story and some theological reflection in the wisdom tradition


We didn’t use to pre-rinse. We simply piled the dishes into a couple basins after dinner, left them there while we had our discussion (or Bible study, or speaker or whatever) and then washed them at the end. By that time, however, the food had dried on, everything was hard to wash, and we quickly used up our wash water.

Now you have to realize that, since we were nowhere near a kitchen or sink, we heated all our water in a large coffee urn (without the coffee!). We only had 1 round of hot water for washing and rinsing, and needed to make the best possible use of it. Se we decided to plan ahead, add another stage to our washing process (we now have 3), and let time work for us. After dinner the dishes sit in a basin of water until it’s time to wash, and then they are all scraped and rinsed before going into the wash water.


As I thought about this I realized that the washing and rinsing need each other – neither is sufficient or complete on its own. And that got me thinking about some Old Testament wisdom.

Proverbs 15:22 says, “without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 explains a bit more fully: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Who said this was only a wedding text!?)

But my favourite text in this regard is Exodus 18, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro gives him some wise advice about sharing the burden of his work with others. “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (vv.17-18). By sharing the responsibility of making leadership decisions with other capable individuals, he said, “it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace” (vv. 22-23).

Incidentally, all of this helps explain why scraping is always my preferred job

Dishwashing as Discipleship

Or Why Jesus would tell us we ought to wash each others’ dishes

A Theological reflection on the Last Supper

I believe that washing dishes is the closest analogy we have to footwashing. It’s the lowest ranking job in the kitchen. Touching the remains of other people’s food with our hands is considered a menial role; hot, messy, physical labour usually relegated to machines.

In the ancient world footwashing was an essential act of hospitality (e.g. Gen 18; Lk 7:36ff). It was always done by a servant, but that person couldn’t be Jewish, because touching another person’s feet made you unclean. So try to imagine the disciples’ shock and horror when, at the Last Supper (Jn 13), Jesus took off his robe and washed their feet! Their revered Teacher did a humiliating servants’ job.

When we wash dishes we perform an act of essential service toward each other. It is not only physical (“hands-on”), tiresome and dirty, it is also profoundly spiritual and symbolic – an act of menial (a.k.a. humble) service.

And so I offer you this paraphrase of John 13:12-17:

After he had washed their dishes, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord-and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your dishes, you also ought to wash one another’s dishes. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’


As an aside, consider some of the different settings in which we eat, and how the degree of contact we have with the food preparation & clean-up process is closely correlated to the level of formality, the kinds of interaction we have, and the overall “feel” of the experience:

  • Restaurant – no contact with food preparation or clean-up; a patron is served by a waiter
  • Buffet/Cafeteria – you pick up your own food and sometimes clear your own dishes; this is much less formal, but there is still no contact or interaction with those who make the food or will wash the dishes
  • Guest in a home – the food is served by, and eaten with, those who made the food and who will likely clean it up (e.g. compare the guest-host relationship with patron-waiter); if the hosts are good friends, you may offer to help set the table or wash dishes later.
  • Dinner at GCF – some have purchased, made or brought the food to share; others will wash the dishes; we all eat together and clean-up is a communal activity; service is mutual, and the whole experience is characterized by reciprocity & gratitude.


Dishwashing as Liturgy

or Why we always wash dishes at the end of the evening

or Communal practices, formation, and why any of this matters anyway

Recall that earlier I mentioned the idea of shaping a community by developing regular habits, e.g. going to church, attending Wine Before Breakfast each week. We tend to see worship this way, but few other things.

At GCF we have deliberately cultivated a number of communal practices:

  • hospitality (cooking for each other & eating together)
  • gratitude (deliberately thanking each other)
  • worship (e.g. prayers, silence, litanies, etc.)
  • washing dishes

Together these form the rhythm of the community. They shape our time together.

So why is that important? James K. A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, challenges the notion of worldview as a rational construct that is primarily about ideas. He argues that we are more fundamentally desiring creatures, and desire is also emotional and physical (involving all the senses). It’s about the “gut” (in the Bible, heart kardia), our notion of “the good life,” our visions, hopes and passions. Desire is what shapes our imaginations, and determines what we love.

These desires then get expressed in liturgies – practices that we do regularly. Liturgies are things we do together – they are almost always communal – and they both tell about us (give testimony), and form us. Liturgies are fundamentally about formation, about shaping people’s desires, what Smith calls the “education of desire.”

So education necessarily involves liturgies, or regular shared practices. If we want to think about how we form and shape radical disciples of the Kingdom, then we must ask what kinds of practices / liturgies we need. We must think together about the kinds of discipleship practices that form us (or that we wish would), and then consider how we nurture these within our community here at GCF. Some of the more common Christian practices include prayer, scripture, fasting, study, worship (at church)

But Smith encourages us to broaden our definition to include every aspect of the way we are together; what we do and how we do it, our routines, habits etc. He would have us see all of our communal practices as formative liturgies, shaping the kinds of people and communities that we are.

Washing dishes captures so much of all this. To give just a few examples, one could point out that the practice of regularly washing each others dishes helps us develop:

  • humility (especially important in academe)
  • gratitude (appreciation for the meal)
  • service (vs. self-centredness)
  • fellowship / community (spending quality time together)
  • hospitality (welcome, food, sharing, multiple kids of nourishment)
  • a place of belonging / being at home (vs. loneliness)

Washing dishes is practical (helping to ground some of our more lofty our ideas) and tangible (involving our bodies, all our senses, and a degree of effort / work / labour). It is an act of cleansing with water, evoking powerful religious symbolism as well as elements of health and hygiene. In sum, it’s a way of making an everyday, mundane activity both sacred and meaningful.

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