We stopped at a fast-food restaurant for a quick bite between shopping excursions. The preparation area was open to the serving counter, and with a rush of patrons we stood watching workers create burritos and tacos. One teen on staff was obviously struggling with a cold or perhaps even a more severe virus. He walked past us several times, sneezing twice into his open hand. Then he went to a back wall, passed his hands under a dispenser but avoided the sink, turned to the food preparation counter, and began to toss together the ingredients for our order. His nose was running, and every 15-20 seconds he sniffed loudly.
The woman next to me whispered, “He didn’t wash his hands!” The man on the other side of her shook his head in disgust. I said to the person at the counter, whose nametag carried the designation Assistant Manager, “Excuse me, but that young man didn’t wash his hands before working with the food. He was just sneezing, and he didn’t wash his hands!”
The young man heard our conversations. He walked up to the counter with a belligerent look and said, “I did too wash my hands!”
“No you didn’t!” said the woman next to me. “I saw everything you did, and you didn’t wash your hands!”
“I saw the same thing,” I said.
He was angry now. “Here!” he said, shoving his hands up to my nose. “You want to smell?”
By now I was disgusted, my appetite was gone, and our daughters were thoroughly embarrassed by the fuss. I backed away, he finished preparing our food, we nibbled at some of it, threw most of it away, and left quickly. We have never gone back there to eat. We’re not finicky about most things, but that episode of unwashed hands left us shivering with distaste.
Most of us have tried to get away without washing our hands one time or another. When our mothers called us to the meal table we were often too hungry to wash, or couldn’t be bothered. Whatever germs we devoured from dirty hands became our own menace, and usually no one else’s.
But when another person’s carelessness spreads threats of the plague in a public arena we become concerned. No one wants a doctor to perform open-heart surgery without scrubbing up first. None wish to shake hands with a careless trash hauler. No parent desires a childcare attendant to change the baby’s diaper and feed that child without a ritual washing in between.
Stop the Plague
When we were living in Nigeria a plague of pinkeye swept through the region. Nearly every student suffered from it—tearing, sore eyes, sniffles. Most people in the market place at Gboko displayed symptoms. The doctor at our mission station warned us: “Wash your hands as often as possible, and don’t touch your eyes.”
So we washed. And we tried to keep our hands from our eyes. Amazingly, we never got pinkeye in our family.
That was a good lesson in the value of hand washing. Sometimes we need to get rid of the dirt that clings when we work. Sometimes we are preparing ourselves for something special, like a date or a banquet. Sometimes, with Pilate at the trial of Jesus, we are showing symbolically that we want to be rid of a matter that irritates us. And sometimes, as our doctor reminded us, we are trying to prevent the spread of disease.
Shakespeare wrote a scene that can also take hand washing one level deeper. When Lady McBeth conspires with her husband to murder Duncan, the righteous indignation of divine morality vexes her mind until the stains of Duncan’s blood seem indelibly imprinted on her palms. She roams sleeplessly, rubbing her hands raw in a futile attempt to cleanse them, muttering, “Out, damned spot!”
Some stains, however, run too deep for water. Only the soap of grace can change the hue of human flesh and keep the plague of sin from passing along from one victim to the next.