RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Until she met her match in a teacher named Anne Sullivan, 7-year-old Helen Keller didn’t realize how desperately she wanted to know the meaning of “water.”
“Water” was the first word Helen — blind and deaf since a fever in infancy — understood. Not just spelled with uncomprehending hands, but understood with her mind and heart. Water has a name: “water.” So does tree. And mother. Teacher. Love. God.
That historic moment in 1887 transformed Helen’s life — and the lives of countless others she later rescued from darkness and neglect. With “Teacher” at her side for much of her long life, Helen learned many, many more words. She graduated from Radcliffe with honors, wrote books, inspired presidents and kings, crusaded for the disabled and became one of the world’s most beloved figures.
The “water” moment is captured for all to behold in “The Miracle Worker,” the Oscar-winning 1962 film rendition of William Gibson’s classic play. It immortalizes Helen’s war of wills with Anne Sullivan, the young teacher who dragged her — quite literally kicking and screaming — into the light of understanding.
THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING
The harrowing dinner scene alone — in which the Kellers’ formal dining room gets thoroughly trashed as Anne wrestles with Helen over basic table manners — is one of the great moments in movie history. If you like action, it beats any fight sequence ever choreographed by Jackie Chan.
The water scene comes much later, when an exhausted Anne drags Helen outside to refill the water pitcher the child has just dumped all over her teacher. As they push the pump handle, Anne spells “water” into Helen’s palm while the cold trickle flows over their hands. At long last, Helen comprehends this one word — and understands for the first time that words hold the key to understanding the world.
I don’t care how jaded you are; this moment will bring tears to your eyes no matter how many times you watch it.
The Miracle Worker is one of the great testaments of our age to human love and striving. It pays tribute to the guts and courage of true teachers like Anne Sullivan.
Most of all, it contains enough spiritual truth for a thousand sermons — about darkness and light, thirst and water, law and grace, love and determination.
LOCKED IN A DUNGEON
Helen Keller is not the heroine of this story; Anne Sullivan is. Half-blind herself, wounded inside from an early life of poverty in the nightmarish New England almshouse where her younger brother died, Anne fought for a chance at precious education — and made the most of it.
But education alone didn’t prepare Anne for Helen, whose parents indulged her every whim out of guilt or pity. She terrorized the genteel Keller home in Alabama, doing as she pleased and flailing away in her silent, ignorant darkness.
Anne would have none of that when she arrived, but the odds against her were steep from the start. No one else believed Anne could teach Helen anything beyond the simple commands a trained animal could follow.
“If God had meant Helen to have eyes, he would have given her them,” Helen’s father tells Anne in the play. “You’ve taken a wild thing and given us back a child. You’ve taught her so much we couldn’t.”
“I taught her two things: yes and no, can do and can’t do,” Anne replies. “I wanted to teach her language. … Without it she’s in a dungeon.”
When Helen finally learns the meaning of “water,” the key of understanding unlocks the dungeon door.
A PASSION FOR SOULS
So it is with us all. The Living Word unlocks our dungeons. As He declared at the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus Christ was anointed by God to “preach the gospel to the poor…. To proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind….” (Luke 4:18).
The passionate soul-winner has become an unpopular figure in polite society — even within the church. We’re told not to tell people in our modern, diverse communities that they are lost without Christ. We’re told not to go to other nations, cultures and peoples and tell them that Jesus is the only path to God and salvation. It’s so 19th-century. It’s uncomfortable. It’s offensive. It’s potentially dangerous.
It’s what God wants us to do.
This is no call for evangelism by force. In her heart, Helen wanted with all her being to know and understand the world around her. The lost want to know the truth. Whether they embrace it or not is their decision.
People with a passion for souls are the Anne Sullivans of the church. They vividly remember their former imprisonment in darkness. They cling to the Word with all their might. They will let nothing — nothing — prevent them from sharing the Word with others: family, friends, neighbors, unreached people groups around the world.
“I once was lost, but now am found,” wrote John Newton, who is still winning souls two centuries after his death. “Was blind, but now I see.”
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.