Biblical Illiteracy = Cultural Poverty: R.S. Thomas and “The Living Water That Springs Pure”

Stephen Broadbent’s sculpture “Water of Life”

Stephen Broadbent’s sculpture “Water of Life”

Having gone to Sunday school paid off for my son in college literature courses, where he identified insights rippling out from biblical allusions that other students glossed over because they were biblically illiterate.

A reference to the pearl of great price was not even a pebble dropped into their mental ponds.

My friend Susan had a similar experience in the cloister of England’s Chester Cathedral. She was meditating on the meaning of Stephen Broadbent’s sculpture “Water of Life,” when tourists from London strolled into the garden. Here’s what she jotted down in her journal:

I was aware of people around me, when a resilient City accent penetrated my concentration. “Ere George, what’s that say? Eternal what?” The man repeated, “for eter . . . for eter . . . for etern . . .”

I willed him on silently, Susan continues, to discover this revelation for himself. I could turn around and tell him, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful for them to work it out and discover for themselves? I kept my counsel.

“For eternity maybe,” he pronounced, throwing the words down as a bet, a coin tossed into the pool, a gesture of luck as they turned and walked away.

The Londoners failed to read the sculpture as they were trying to read the words at its base.

Broadbent’s work presents a woman holding a bowl overflowing with water, bending lovingly over a seated man, their lips poised to meet.

People familiar with the Gospel of John could have read the sculpture and the words surrounding it . . . and fallen silent . . . and found themselves enfolded in human and divine love . . . and, perhaps, had their spiritual thirst quenched.

But more tourists, I’m sure, than the Londoners are like R. S. Thomas’s fisherman:

A simple man,
He liked the crease on the water
His cast made, but had no pity
For the broken backbone
Of water or fish.

One of his pleasures, thirsty,
Was to ask a drink
At the hot farms;
Leaving with a casual thank you,
As though they owed it him.

I could have told of the living water
That springs pure.
He would have smiled then,
Dancing his speckled fly in the shallows,
Not understanding.

RS recognizes, as does my friend Susan, that biblical illiteracy leads to cultural poverty – inability to live deep in our heritage, for the great works of Western art and literature overflow, like the water from the woman’s bowl, with biblical references.

So what is the meaning of “Water of Life”? Here is the description from Broadbent’s web site:

A sculptural water feature that presents the life changing encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria, as told in John’s gospel, celebrating the literal and spiritual, life-giving properties of water. The circular shape brings the two figures face to face, lending intensity and tenderness to the encounter. Water flows continually from the shared cup, over the hands and into the pool in the dish below, from where the sculpture is illuminated, through the water. Around this dish are the words, “Jesus said, ‘the water that I shall give will be an inner spring always welling up for eternal life’ (John 4:14).”


Poem of R. S. Thomas quoted in this post:

“A simply man” – “The Fisherman,” Not That He Brought Flowers (1968), 19.

Biblical references in this post:

Pearl of great price – Matthew 13:45-46.

The Samaritan woman and Jesus – John 4:7-30.



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